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Breaking Free from the Tentacles of Addiction as a Family Unit

Breaking Free from the Tentacles of Addiction as a Family Unit

Written by: Julianna Pang

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.

What is Addiction?

Fundamentally, this approach does not work due to a miscomprehension of what addiction is. Addiction is neither a moral issue nor is it a flawed character problem which can be corrected.

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.
How can Family Members get the Affected Person into Treatment?

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.
Honeymoon

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:

  • Maintain Boundaries.
  • 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.
The Wall

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.
Adjustment

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.
Resolution

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.
Visions of Recovery

This article is not intended to be exhaustive in addressing all aspects of family system disruptions when addiction strikes.  Working with professional therapists at any point along the recovery pathway helps manage the diverse challenges and provide a sounding board to create more effective strategies.  The emotional and structural resilience of the family system and its members ultimately creates the critical strength to sustain all members in this marathon towards sobriety.

Write to visions@promises.com.sg to get in touch with an addictions specialist or for more resources and information, click on the relevant links:

 


  1. Asam.org. 2021. ASAM Definition of Addiction. Available at: https://www.asam.org/Quality-Science/definition-of-addiction
  2. Brown, R., Brown, M. and Brown, P., 2014. Families and addiction. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform. USA.

  3. This is notwithstanding a citizen’s duty to alert authorities in times of criminal activity. It is a consideration of how the process can be better executed.

  4. Hilary S. Connery. and Thomas F. Harrison., n.d. The Complete Family Guide to Addiction: Everything You Need to Know Now to Help Your Loved One and Yourself. The Guilford Press. London.

  5. Hilary S. Connery. and Thomas F. Harrison., n.d. The Complete Family Guide to Addiction: Everything You Need to Know Now to Help Your Loved One and Yourself. The Guilford Press. London.

  6. The exception to the rule is where the person is unsafe or at risk of seriously hurting themselves.

  7. Brown, R., Brown, M. and Brown, P., 2014. Families and addiction. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform. USA.