Healing the Family After Addiction

Healing the family damage of addiction can feel overwhelming to everyone. Each loved one will have suffered from active addiction with their own particular struggles and emotional pain. And, no two family members will have had the same reactions although they shared many situations and events.

Each Family Member is Unique

As we all are unique people, so in a family, no matter how close, members are unique in their responses to addiction in the family. One’s person’s perception is always slightly different. It’s akin to a group of people, all eyewitnesses to an accident, having a different set of facts about it. None is better than the other. Each perception is valid. And, each perception has to find some sort of resolution, particularly if the experience was upsetting. Additionally, each family member’s unique story is important in the overall healing of the family as a unit.

Honoring Each Other When Healing the Family

When an addicted loved one is finally in treatment, the family can relax in a sense. Hope has returned even though family members may be skeptical and guarded against it. And, if there have been other recovery efforts that failed, loved ones are likely to have very little hope.

In any event, however, there is a shift of some sort throughout the family. Some may become more hopeful, and those that remember being disappointed before may become angry and withdrawn. But, while the addicted person is healing in rehab, family members are often not so fortunate, even if they do feel some relief and hope. They are traumatized to some degree—some worse than others–and do not have the supportive and immersive environment of a treatment setting.

Family therapy gives each member an opportunity to come together with others and to share their unique experiences, perceptions, and reactions. If the family can accommodate that, honor each perspective and embrace the collective story, healing can be powerfully accelerated for everyone. A key is that every family members experience has to be given credence and honored as valid because it is.

The Addicted Loved One’s Work

Of course, the addicted family member has very unique work to do in his or her own healing and in healing with the family. First of all, the addicted loved one remains the center of attention, and that is not always a good spot.  Often, it is a scapegoated position in which everything bad in the family is considered the addict’s fault. While addiction certainly brings a chaotic force, not every problem is the fault of someone with an illness. Often things are attributed to the addictive illness that should rightfully be someone else’s responsibility. But, having a highly visible ‘target’ like an addict in the family makes it easy to avoid personal responsibility sometimes. For example, a family member that is angry and acting out may place the blame on the addicted person, when in fact, one’s behavior is always one’s responsibility. The recovering family member will have to deal with shame, blame, and guilt as he or she heals.

The same dynamic happens in lots of ways. For example, an enabler in the family may feel uncomfortable with the addict’s treatment and new sobriety. Recovery leaves the enabler without a way to be important in the family, and without a clearly defined role. His or her intense focus on helping the addict manage the addiction has typically left the enabler without a clear sense of identity apart from the addiction. As the addict recovers, the enabler is likely to be distressed, trying to find another focus in daily life. The addict may very well continue to be the enabler’s chief focus, but to stay in sobriety, the recovering addict will have to assert boundaries with the enabler.

Overall, the recovering addict will have to negotiate different roles in the family and in each relationship with family members. This is gradual of course and requires time for everyone to adjust. And, as wonderful as addiction recovery is, it can be hard. We are creatures of habit, and if the addiction has gone on a long time, it will be hard to assume new roles and new interactional patterns.

Problem Patterns in Healing the Family

Of course, all the dynamics discussed above are challenges in the family’s healing. However, there are many behavioral, emotional and thinking patterns that need to shift as a family heals after active addiction. And, this is throughout the family, not just for the recovering addict. For example, a family may have gotten used to not including the addicted member in certain communication or decision-making because it really served no helpful point, or made things operate less smoothly. With sobriety, however, the recovering person is more fully alert and available, more a participant in family matters.

Along the same lines, family members may resent the recovering member’s more active participation. It requires a new flow of interaction and such changes can be awkward for a while. Also, family members may harbor resentments, or even the wish to avoid interaction with the recovering person because the pain of past events still lingers.

Often, too, families living with addiction for a long time fall in and out of denial in a fluctuating way. They may be keenly involved and aware at one time and slide back into denial at others. This is a merciful pattern when living with a chronic addictive illness. One simply can’t be fully alert to the problem and continue on with other aspects of life well. Denial helps one shift to another focus. However, denial patterns can continue well after the addicted family member has become sober. And, denial patterns can extend out into other problems the family must face.

Also, communication problems, in general, can have fallen into dysfunctional patterns and must change with recovery. For example, families of addiction often communicate indirectly or with explosions of outbursts. There is often a don’t speak the truth rule in such families, with family members keeping their true feelings, thoughts, needs and wishes to themselves. As the family heals, communication typically becomes more direct and more assertive. Although this can take some time, and often requires counseling or coaching, the healing family will eventually be able to communicate in a healthier way.

Healing the Family in Counseling

Fortunately, it is common to involve family members in treatment when an addicted loved one is in rehab. It is common also to include family in aftercare and follow-up services after discharge from a rehab program. Family services can benefit everyone in various ways. They allow the recovering family member to have the support of family. They help educate everyone about addiction and recovery. They bring the family together to process their shared painful and traumatic experiences, and they help the family rebuild a healthier family system.

Family members of all ages may participate, and this is dependent upon the counselor’s guidance, as well as the family’s comfort. Even young children, for example, can be affected by the stress of addiction in the family. They also often have more information about the addiction than adults know. However, there can also be issues that youngsters should not hear discussed, and so decisions will have to be made about youngsters’ participation as the family moves along to new topics.

Shared Experiences in Healing the Family

Healing the family requires time, willingness, perseverance, and patience. Not every family member will move along with everyone else. And, difficult emotions are bound to surface. However, despite individual differences, family members also share a great deal. All have, for example, experienced losses because of addiction in the family.  And, losses cover a great range and degree of loss. There is lost connection to the addicted loved one, for instance, as well as loss of opportunities to grow and develop without obstacles. Every family event and significant milestone will have had to adjust to the addicted person’s condition somehow. Some would have been severely disrupted or derailed, and others would have been just slightly impinged upon.

Other commonly shared experiences among family members are the experiences of shame and embarrassment. There continues to be a great deal of stigma and misinformation about addiction in our culture, and this extends to family members who have an addicted loved one. For example, people with addictions are often stereotyped as morally corrupt people who have weak and inadequate character. Even though this is seriously off base and at odds with the reality of the addictive illness, these myths continue and cause people with addictions and their families a good deal of shame and social embarrassment.

Finally, even though individual family members will have varying emotional states at different times, all family members typically feel the same difficult emotions at some time. Anger, resentment, sorrow, sadness, depression, and grief are common for every member of a family in which there is an addicted loved one.

Reaching Out for Help

Healing the family when there is an addicted family member can start with anyone. In fact, the family may do its own healing work even if the addicted loved one never enters recovery. Similarly, and unfortunately, the opposite is also true. A family may continue to suffer and never heal from the impact of addiction, even when the addicted loved one has long-lasting sobriety.

If you have an addicted loved one and need help, there are a great many options. There are 12 Step support groups for example, like Ala-Non, Codependents Anonymous, and Adult Children of Alcoholics. And, there are individual and group counseling services for loved ones.

If you have an addiction and are ready to begin your recovery efforts, you also have many options. You can call us today for a free consultation. We will clarify your insurance coverage and identify your specific needs for treatment. Then, we will make recommendations for treatment options that meet both your clinical needs and your financial situation. Recovery is possible for you and your family. Do your part and reach out for what you need.