Confronting the problem of addiction is almost always daunting and exhausting. The layers of complexities increase tenfold when the family system is also trying to preserve its stability and normal functioning despite the disruptions that addiction brings.
Family members are often exasperated that the usual admonishments of “how could you do this to…?”, “why can’t you see that you are hurting…?” or “how long do you think you can keep doing this…?” seem to bounce off the walls.No amount of shaming, guilt-laying or threats seems to wake the affected person up to see the realities of the wreckage that has been inflicted on the family.
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine:
“Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviours that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”
Addiction is a disease.As a family member, it is important to recognise that “you did not cause the disease, you cannot cure it and you cannot control the outcome of the disease”. The person affected needs to learn to manage their own recovery and family members need to learn effective responses towards the affected person to support the recovery of the family system.
Recovery is a life-long process that may and often include a series of relapses both on the part of the individual and on the family system.
How Does One Know When Addiction Strikes?
Symptoms of addiction are manifested by:
Compulsion – an absolute and overpowering urge towards substance use or behaviour.
Craving – an increase in usage and/or frequency to a point of necessity for survival.
Control – loss of ability to manage manner of use, to reduce or to stop.
Consequences – the use or behaviour continues despite relationship, work, school, legal and money problems.
The first step to bringing the affected person towards professional help can either motivate or unsettle the recovery process.
As professional therapists working in this field, we witnessed many instances where one of the first steps by family members would be to call the authorities.This is a painful first step that often inflicts hurt on both the affected person and the family member.The outcome could turn out to be a sharp wedge between family members which may take a long time for repair and reconciliation. Many a time, the affected person may attempt to run and hide, taking them even further away from the treatment help that they need.
The next most common first step is an intervention. This is a meeting convened to confront the person affected and interventionists may include family members, close friends and/or religious leaders.Each member shares with the person about their observations of specific negative behaviours and how these behaviours have affected them.The group then presents options to the target person and encourage the entry into rehab immediately.
An intervention is a double-edged sword. When done well, members expressed their love and care for the target person, while maintaining an uncompromising position about the person’s problem with addiction and need for treatment.When executed poorly, the target person receives a shock and feels a deep sense of betrayal from the group. The feelings of bitterness and resentment towards the whole intervention experience wipe out the initial good intentions. This, in turn, makes for poor motivation to accept and adhere to treatment. Trust towards the family system is broken which would likely take a long time to mend.
A 3rd strategy is known as CRAFT – which advocates for positive communication, positive reinforcement and allowing for natural consequences to happen. This approach takes a longer time to implement and focus on identifying actions by the affected person which are helpful towards recovery, expressing empathy towards the person’s suffering and offering to work with the person to find a solution.An example of positive reinforcement could be to engage the person in activities within the family system that the person still values. The 3rd aspect is counter-intuitive; to allow the person to bear the natural consequences of their actions, instead of covering up for them or trying to make everything “all right”.In so doing, the realities of the consequences of the addiction is experienced fully by the affected person which can create the turning point to seek treatment.
Is the Family’s Job Done When They Ship Off the Affected Person?
Addiction is a life-long recovery process and parallel to the individual’s recovery is the family system’s rebalancing process.
In broad terms, the individual’s stages of recovery are as follows:
Withdrawal – Detoxing
Honeymoon – Addiction Stops
The Wall – Protracted Abstinence
Adjustment – Working through Underlying Issues
Resolution – Acceptance of lifelong Abstinence
What is the Parallel Journey for the Family System?
Pre-treatment and Withdrawal
At the initial stage, the affected person will test the limits of the system by engineering and re-engineering their way to get to their addiction.A person in active addiction is usually not rational, nor are they conscious of the effect of their actions on others.There may be many false promises made in order to get to the addiction or manipulation of family system dynamics to garner support for their continued addiction.
Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:
Get an Accurate Understanding of Addiction.
Create Unison in the Family Approach.
Relinquish Control of Outcome of Addiction.
Self-Care and Emotional Coping for Shame, Anger and Blame.
Learn How to set and Communicate Boundaries.
Find Family Support Groups to Brainstorm Strategies – Link to Visions Programme.
During this stage, the affected person would have stopped the active addiction. The person reverts to their pre-addiction persona that the family was used to and readily embraced.There is a delusion that all is victorious, and the person is cured.Some people would even deny that there was ever an addiction in the first place.Family members and individual alike start to make wonderful plans for a new future, unaware of the undercurrent of the recovering person’s vulnerabilities to triggers, anxieties, and relapses.
Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:
Adjust Family Life to Reduce Triggers.
Rebuild Trust and Learn To Discern Through Observations.
Learn About Adjustment Process and Strategies with Other Families – Link to Visions Programme.
By the time the recovering person reaches this stage, his/her body is trying very hard to stabilise and find its new baseline. The struggle without their past go-to coping mechanism manifests in depression, irritability, and inability to find pleasure in the usual activities. Family members may take things personally when their overtures to reintegrate the person into their lives are rejected. Some family members may start to prefer the “happy” person who was previously addicted or start being highly suspicious that the person has relapsed.
Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:
Maintain Unison in The Family Approach.
Learn Emotional Coping to Rejection, Anxieties and Tolerance for Uncertainty.
Share and Validate Family Experiences with Other Families – Link to Visions Programme.
When the recovery process reaches this stage, both the individual and the family have crossed some major milestones (It is typical that some 6 months would have passed from the start of journey.).The most daunting challenges are now bubbling up in the horizon.Family relationships, lifestyles and values may be examined at a fundamental level and permanent changes may need to be made for recovery to be sustainable over the long haul.Past hurt and traumatic experiences would need to be resolved for both individual and family to move forward to a new way of interaction.
Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:
Commit to Family Approach Without Complacency.
Address the Emotional Well-Being of Other Neglected Members.
Learn Emotional Coping on Forgiveness, Grieving, Acceptance and Letting Go.
Learn Goal Setting and Strategies to Create a New Family Life Experience with Other Families – Link to Visions Programme.
The last stage is not a phase per-se but a continual process for the lifetime of the individual and for the family system that has learnt and grown alongside him/her.The individual is practicing commitment to his/her sober life free from addiction every single day.The family system has likely been permanently transformed by the recovery process and is now reintegrating the member into its new dynamics.
Here are a few pointers that family members can keep in mind at this stage:
Embrace the New Family System, Lifestyle, Values and Norms.
Celebrate Successes and All Learning Experiences as A Family Unit.
Offer to Be a Supportive Family System to Other Families – Link to Visions Programme.
Caregivers with a family member affected by addiction problems are often exhausted, drained dry of their empathy and compassionate capacities.
They recount countless cycles of suspended hope followed by just as many broken promises as they watch the affected person return time and again to their compulsive addiction despite a seemingly obvious trail of destruction behind them.
Caregivers learn to cope with the endless demands on their energies by blending the words uttered by the affected persons as a cocktail of lies, manipulation and attention-seeking antics to get what they want.In time, the cries for help from the affected person turn into cries for help by the boy who cried wolf and eventually fading into indistinguishable white noise.
Professor Lisa Firestone of the Glendon Association observes that there is a natural tendency for caregivers to minimise any suicide expressions in general.Responses such as, “Well, his past attempts weren’t serious.” or “He is just manipulating to get something.” are commonly observed.There is also a general tendency to not want the expressions to be true.In the case of addicts, words such as “I want to die” or “I am going to end my life” no longer convey the same meaning or gravity of their sense of desperation.
Why should we want to pay attention to an addict’s cry for help?
In Singapore, we lose 1.1 lives every day to suicide.It is still the leading cause of death for youths aged 10 to 29.While direct correlation evidence is still being researched on, studies in America have shown that more than 90% of people who kill themselves suffer from depression have a substance abuse disorder or both. Suicidality and addiction share a high concordance relationship.
When we overlay the statistics with a physiological lens, we note that both groups of persons have been observed in studies to have a dysfunctional hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which essentially controls our body’s response to stress.
In a person with a normal functioning HPA axis, on the reception of a stressor, the hypothalamus in our brain instructs the secretion of the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and vasopressin to stimulate our pituitary glands to produce the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).The ACTH, in turn, stimulates glucocorticoid synthesis and release (commonly referred to as cortisol) from the adrenal glands.This chain reaction provides a person the increased energy to handle the stress event and to do so without suffering from the pain and fatigue.When the stress event is gone, the body produces a negative feedback loop which then brings the body system back to homeostasis.
In a person exposed to a persistent or extreme level of stress, or in a person who frequently activates the HPA axis through substance use, the body starts to blunt the sensitivity of the HPA axis and blunt cell receptivity to cortisol in its efforts to return to and maintain homeostasis.This alteration to the sensitivity of the HPA axis affects our ability to tolerate physical and mental stresses and creates a need for a much bigger stimulus to activate the HPA axis (which may mean higher dosage of substance use); and when the HPA axis does react, produces a much bigger and exaggerated response (which may translate to more aggressive behaviours).
What Does This Mean In Practical Terms?
Many suicidal persons described having a voice in their head which is constantly there; telling them how much they need to seek fulfilment and comfort by reaching for the desired stimulus, whether it be a substance or a behaviour, of which one is killing themselves.Their mind starts to command them to constantly plan, to seek out and to take actions to soothe the unbearable lack that they are feeling.Eventually, the voice in the head goes from coaxing and persuading to being more intensive and aggressive towards the self to take immediate drastic actions.
The relief of death, a final refuge, becomes alluring and pleasurable and the fear of dying eventually transforms into the fear of not dying and becoming the loser, disappointment, and burden that they already believe themselves to be to their caregivers.This dual push towards drastic action and the need for an ever-increasing amount of substance in addicts leads to an increase in the risk level of suicidality.
What Can We Look Out For?
How then does the caregiver separate the wheat from the chaff amid the chaos that addiction has already wrought onto the family system to detect the risks of suicidality?
Below are some, though not exclusive, common markers to look out for. It is particularly useful to note changes in the content of the affected person’s expressions and any escalation or sudden extinction of intensity.
Intense Emotional Outbursts
Extreme Isolation or Withdrawal
The feeling of Being a Misfit in Every Way
Researching or Procuring Means of Suicide.
Self-Harm, Including Risky Substance Use or Behaviours.
Planning of Affairs.
Presence of Trigger Events
Loss of Primary Relationship.
Physical or Mental Health Conditions That Debilitate.
Abuse or Trauma Events.
What Can Caregivers Do On Observing The Signs?
Ask the Suicide Questions:
In the past few weeks, have you ever wished that you were dead?
In the past few weeks, have you felt that you or your family would be better off if you were dead?
In the past week, have you made plans about killing yourself?
Have you tried to kill yourself?
If the answers are yes to any or to all the questions, caregivers are encouraged to take the following first steps:
Be empathetic towards the suicidal wish.
The objective is not to agree with the act of suicide but to understand what has happened to lead the affected person to the conclusion that suicide is the only solution.
Find a genuine connection with the affected person.
However difficult that person might have been in your life, express what this person means to you personally and how the loss of this person would affect you.
Make a safety plan.
Ask the affected person to agree to not take or delay any action to harm themselves until they get to or you get them to professional help.
Professor Lisa Firestone observes that suicidal persons are generally ambivalent: a part of them wants to die but a part of them wants to live as well.There is often a process of the dividing up of the self within the person, between an aspect which is life affirming and engaging with the outer world; and the anti-self, which is self-critical, self-hating and ultimately suicidal.The key to recovery is to connect with and help strengthen that part of them that wants to keep on living.
6 Dazzi, T., Gribble, R., Wessely, S., & Fear, N. (2014). Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Psychological Medicine, 44(16), 3361-3363. doi:10.1017/S0033291714001299
Alcohol. A beverage that many people enjoy drinking; be it for socialisation or as an escape from reality. However, it is also a beverage that can harm your health and adversely affect many lives. Indeed, alcohol abuse has become increasingly rampant, where it is one of the leading causes of disease and death, with 5.3% of all global deaths and over 200 diseases and injury conditions resulting from the harmful use of alcohol. Worryingly, it is also a phenomenon that has affected Singapore, with 9.6% of Singaporeans engaging in binge drinking (as of 2016) and an increasing number of Singaporean young adults battling Alcohol Use Disorders (AUD). As such, alcohol abuse has become a growing cause of concern.
There are many reasons why alcohol consumption is increasing. Alcohol consumption has been perpetuated by the media in recent years, with an increase in advertising and marketing of alcohol. For instance, in Australia, people are exposed to about nine alcohol televised advertisements every month. In turn, exposure to such advertisements causes alcohol consumption to be glorified and promoted, where people have unrealistic positive expectations towards alcohol, believing that it boosts one’s mood and invokes cheerfulness and confidence. Additionally, alcohol consumption has also increased due to peer pressure. Be it a work engagement or partying with friends, people often find it hard to say no to alcohol, as that rejection may cause disapproval among colleagues or friends. Thus, many people engage in risky drinking behaviour to socialise and develop their relationships.
However, a more significant reason behind alcohol consumption is feelings of anxiety or having anxiety disorders. People with anxiety disorders have 2 to 3 times the risk of having alcohol use disorders (Smith & Randall, 2012). Many people tend to use alcohol to reduce social anxiety, as they believe that alcohol is an excellent aid to speak up and gain more confidence around others. Similarly, people use alcohol as a form of self-medication to overcome anxiety symptoms and stress, relying on it as a coping mechanism. However, contrary to popular beliefs, alcohol exacerbates rather than alleviates anxiety symptoms. This worsened anxiety makes them drink more and have more alcohol-related problems, which causes further anxiety and stress.
Alcohol abuse also causes anxiety. Drinking alcohol builds a tolerance to de-stressing effects of alcohol. This creates a temporary sense of relaxation but later leads to feelings of depression and anxiety. This is because the prolonged use of alcohol can act as a stressor and activate the body’s stress response system, changing neurotransmitter levels in the brain and causing an increase in stress and anxiety. As such, alcohol can worsen anxiety symptoms.
Therefore, anxiety and alcohol abuse tend to fuel each other in a vicious feed-forward cycle of co-occurring addiction and anxiety, which is difficult to break out from. As such, integrated treatment for both anxiety and alcohol use should be readily available.
There have been existing parallel or subsequent attempts to treat both anxiety disorder and AUD (i.e. treatment for anxiety disorders first, followed by AUD). However, studies have found that parallel treatments have caused worse alcohol outcomes compared to just seeking one treatment. This is possible because the cognitive load of receiving two separate treatments may be confusing or overwhelming for people, causing them to feel anxious or turn back to drinking as a coping mechanism. As such, these type of treatments causes a “co-morbidity roundabout”, which is a metaphor of mental health problems resurfacing when attempting to tackle substance disorders (and vice versa), thus failing to break out from the vicious cycle of these co-morbid disorders. Therefore, it is clear that both anxiety disorder and AUD are inter-related issues, and an integrated treatment approach is vital to tackle both disorders.
Stapinski et. al. (2015) carried out an integrated treatment for comorbid social anxiety and AUD, where participants undergo both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing. Moreover, it involves core components such as building coping skills, developing alternative reinforcers and preventing relapse. This provides participants with useful skills such as enhancing social support networks, correcting misconceptions towards the benefits of drinking, reducing avoidance of social situations and developing healthy coping skills to manage triggers for drinking or anxiety.
This study took place over ten 90-minute sessions, where 117 participants with both social anxiety and AUD took part in this study. 61 of the participants received integrated treatment (both AUD and social anxiety) and 56 of the participants received treatment for AUD only. Results showed that both treatments enabled a great reduction in alcohol use and dependency. However, participants that underwent the integrated treatment were observed to have a greater decrease in social anxiety symptoms and a greater increase in overall quality of life. More importantly, these results remained constant even after a 6-month follow-up. This means that integrated treatment has long term effects on overall functioning and quality of life.
While the above has proven that integrated treatment is indeed useful in overcoming social anxiety and AUD, the road to recovery is a long and arduous journey, where there are a lot of physical and mental challenges suffered by both the clients and their families. Hence, these issues could be more easily overcome or even avoided if there are early intervention and support to at-risk youths.
Over the years, the number of youths drinking alcohol has increased. According to the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (2004), the number of youths that engage in binge drinking increase tremendously between the age of 18 and 21 (from 18% to 35% respectively). Furthermore, 18-year-olds who drank alcohol as a coping mechanism or who had anxiety disorders were 1.8-3.8 times more likely to drink. Both groups had a greater risk of transitioning from low-risk alcohol use at age 18 to high-risk alcohol use at age 21.
There are many motives that may drive youths to drink alcohol. A primary reason is that youths are at a phase where they are transitioning to adulthood. Adulthood brings more stress and anxiety due to changes such as new relationships; along with new responsibilities and challenges such as living in a dormitory and budgeting. Additionally, this phase of life also provides youth with more autonomy and drinking opportunities (e.g. clubbing, drinking games). With these drastic changes in life, youths often drink to enhance positive moods, socialise with others, conform to social groups, or as a coping mechanism to overcome stress or anxiety. This causes harms associated with alcohol to peak in early adulthood, emphasising the importance of early intervention to avoid these detrimental consequences.
An ongoing programme called “Inroads Study” (Stapinsky et. al., 2019) aims to provide early intervention to youths with anxiety disorders and AUD. It seeks to enhance anxiety coping skills and address coping-motivated drinking. Moreover, this programme is specially tailored to make it more relevant and appealing to youths. This includes making the programme available online, which is preferred by youths as it is more convenient, affordable and reduces stigma. Participants can freely access online therapy sessions and modules about tackling challenges often faced by youths. Thus, such interventions can address the interconnections between anxiety and alcohol use, as well as reach out successfully to youths in a relevant and appealing manner.
Prevention programmes are also forms of early intervention that may benefit younger youths (i.e. 13- or 14-year-olds) that have a ‘high-risk’ of developing substance disorders, even if they do not currently have a substance disorder. It is vital to identify early onset of problems faced by youths and nipping them in the bud, providing them with early support and teaching them relevant life skills. This prevents problems faced by youths from developing into more severe adulthood problems such as substance disorders, chronic mental health problems and delinquency.
One such prevention programme was organised by Edalati & Conrod (2019), who first identified at-risk youths through the Substance Use Risk Profile Scale; where those with higher levels of certain personality traits (e.g. sensation seeking and negative thinking) were at higher risk of abusing substances before the onset of use. Afterwards, these youths attended coping skills workshops, CBT and motivational interviewing. Results showed that the programme proved effective in reducing alcohol use, alcohol-related harms and emotional and behavioural problems (i.e. symptoms of anxiety and depression). This shows the importance of early intervention and prevention programmes.
In conclusion, it is apparent that there are interconnection and the longstanding link between anxiety and alcohol use, where this co-morbidity can cause huge effects on one’s physical and mental wellbeing. Thus, this raises the importance of integrated treatment, allowing both conditions to be resolved at the same time. Furthermore, early intervention is extremely vital to offer support to youths and prevent potential disorders from occurring. More importantly, all this shows that alcohol is not the answer to relieve stress and anxiety, and can only serve to exacerbate rather than resolve our problems. Thus, such action could be done to reduce excessive alcohol use in our society, such that harmful usage and effects of alcohol could be prevented.
Smith, J. P., & Randall, C. L. (2012). Anxiety and alcohol use disorders: Comorbidity and treatment considerations. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 34(4), 414–431.
Stapinski, L. A., Rapee, R. M., Sannibale, C., Teesson, M., Haber, P. S., & Baillie, A. J. (2015). The clinical and theoretical basis for integrated cognitive behavioral treatment of comorbid social anxiety and alcohol use disorders. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 22(4), 504–521.
Golding, J., & ALSPAC Study Team (2004). The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC)–study design and collaborative opportunities. Eur J Endocrinol. 151, U119-U123.
Stapinski, L., Prior, K., Newton, N., Deady, M., Kelly, E., Lees, B., Teesson, M., & Baillie, A. (2019). Protocol for the Inroads Study: A Randomized Controlled Trial of an Internet-Delivered, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-Based Early Intervention to Reduce Anxiety and Hazardous Alcohol Use Among Young People. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 8(4), 1-14.
Edalati, H., & Conrod, P. J. (2019). A Review of Personality-Targeted Interventions for Prevention of Substance Misuse and Related Harm in Community Samples of Adolescents. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 770.
I am a self-confessed introvert. And I’m also an addict.
I was recently cajoled into attending a Psychodrama session. I’d heard things about it – years earlier, my then significant other lauded the raw emotional exploration her sessions afforded her. I encouraged her, it was good for her. Personally though, I found the idea of a group session’s ability to evoke genuine emotion alien. It was the antithesis of who I was.
I had never enjoyed group sessions. I hated them. The introvert in me screamed (silently) in indignation at being forced into a room with my peers, lorded over by therapists who would extol the heaven-sent power of vulnerability, hanging it over the heads of us sullen detainees. They would espouse connectedness with others, openness. To me, these were just unattainable states of being that I could never actualise. The years wore on, and I plodded along, entwined with my precious, thorny, addictions. Prison, pricey rehabs abroad. I took care to never bring my real self along to the banal group therapies – I merely presented them with an alter-ego. Faking it to get along. Or “faking it to make it”, in the parlance of addicts like myself who would say or do anything to achieve a discharge.
I was living an entirely unremarkable life, losing friends and embarrassing myself.
Then, I experienced a seismic shift in circumstances. To represent it as merely ‘mandated’ would be to deny gravity to what had happened. I had run afoul of the law again, and paid my penance with a 9 month long “drug rehab”. I got out, and three months later I was a year clean. Still, I wasn’t happy. I had done no soul searching, nor had I even begun to scratch the surface of my addiction, always lurking in the shadows. Of course, a large part of my reticence towards accepting sincere nudges in the direction of help could be attributed to personal and moral failings. But why was I the person that I was? That’s when I decided to attend a psychodrama workshop at the urgings of my boss, a sweet girl whose genuine concern had initially confounded me. Why did I acquiesce? To understand myself, I guess. So, I went in with an open mind.
Psychodrama is about exploring internal conflicts, by acting out emotions and interpersonal interactions. I wasn’t inclined to be the center of attention just yet, so I left other enthusiastic participants to play the protagonists. The director, a bubbly personality whose sharp wit was tempered by insightful, genuine empathy, herded a roomful of clueless attendees with a deft hand, schooling us in psychodrama’s basic concepts. I made myself small in the corner and watched as our director doubled volunteers, acting out scenes from their lives, giving voice to their unconscious. Revelatory perspicacity was the order of these moments. I watched as they were mirrored, experiencing themselves from the outside, drawing from a nonjudgmental pool of collective consciousness. I watched as roles reversed – mothers became their daughters, and wives their husbands. All of them seemed edified, comforted, even. Misty eyes and rivulet strewn faces, sighing into closures when none previously seemed possible. There was a woman pained by a frightful trauma, her repressed malefaction she seemed so sure she had committed driving her to seek expiation from whom had ceased to be able to give her any. From the outside looking in, I was sure her wound was self-inflicted – we all knew this, but one’s own guilt is deeply personal, often insidious. As her situation percolated in my mind, so did my own guilt. I hadn’t wept when I learned of my father’s and sister’s departures, I hadn’t wept at their funerals, I hadn’t wept at their memorials. I hadn’t needed to, because I had my addiction. Now, without the pernicious warmth of substances, these losses became some therapeutic cynosure of a starting point. I had begun to understand myself, through others. The cynic in me finally realised why, across addiction recovery literature, syllabuses are almost invariably characterised by the motif of benefits accrued by group therapy. I think it owes something to the collective experience of humanity, that no matter your guilt or your shame, there are people out there who have lived congruent experiences. It may seem cloying and mawkish for me to say that no-one is truly alone, but it’s true.