Wellness Wednesday: Handling Addiction In The Family

June 29, 2016

One of the greatest challenges with mental illness is when it strikes a member of your own family. Watching a loved one potentially struggle with a mental health matter can leave you feeling frantic, confused, and very sad and afraid. One particular mental health condition that can cause family stress is addiction, because watching someone you love struggle with a physical and mental dependence on alcohol, drugs, or other substances and dependencies can be terribly upsetting.

We thought we might help, so we contacted a member of our own Hope and Grace Board of Directors, Dr. Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist, author, and public speaker who has broad expertise and clinical experience in a wide array of mental health areas. Here are some of her suggestions on how to handle addiction within the family:


Your approach depends on which family member it is
“Often when you deal with addiction, it’s about how people can’t do it for themselves, but they can do it for others, so there are different strategies. For example, if a parent or spouse is addicted, you can appeal to their responsibility to the family and what would happen to you if they hurt themselves or died, how they would miss different things within the family unit if they weren’t there. Sometimes, active addicts don’t think about these types of things, and being really harsh with them about the fact that they can end up hurting the family as well as themselves to the point where they would damage the family might be a means of getting them to sober up or stop. It sounds dramatic, but it can be a very realistic conversation because harm reduction in addiction is a very big deal. With someone who is younger you have more control.  If the addicted party is a youth (say, under 21,) you can they’re going away to a school or an outward bound program or rehab, and they have no choice. You have more control over someone who is younger, and you have a different kind of influence over someone who is older. In general, people think that you have to let the person hit rock bottom and that’s true, however, waiting for them to hit rock bottom can be really, really hard.”

You have to be willing to let someone hit their “bottom,” or it might not work    
“The concept of ‘rock bottom’ is hard to accept for non-addicts. Alcoholics Anonymous and other programs of recovery talk about how someone has to hit rock bottom, a point where things have gotten so bad that you want to pick yourself up and start getting help.  The problem is that if watching someone suffering in that way can be really terrible for the family; it can feel like you’re enabling them in some way.  Which is when setting boundaries and limits comes into play. They may have to hit bottom to come to a point of surrender where they’ll seek help, but in the meantime you have to make sure their process doesn’t destroy the family. Setting limits also helps in differentiating when you’re helping them through their process, and when you’re not, which removes the fear of enabling them.”

With younger addicts, it’s best to present firm rules
“When I talk to adults in families that deal with addiction, it’s often about parents protecting their own relationship because when they have a teenager that’s addicted; the stress on the relationship can be really terrible. When parents disagree, they won’t necessarily come together, and it will drain them and hurt their relationship. I often tell parents to protect their relationship. Send the kid to Outward Bound if you have the means, to or get them into a facility so they can recover and the family unit can have a break. But parents coming together as a united front is really important because the teenager can be manipulative and go back and forth between the parents to continue using. Parents have to sit down and be really firm about what their rules are so that there isn’t chaos in the home. If you’re a single parent, firm boundaries and rules at home are crucial to ensure your safety and well-being as well as theirs.”

With older addicts, there have to be boundaries
“If the addict is a spouse or older loved one, I would say be really firm about what or your family will tolerate.  This is a tough thing to say, particularly with finances as they are: so many couples stay together not out of love, but out of financial need. There’s another school of thought that says that if you realize you’re in a no-win situation, that you might have to disengage emotionally, which is essentially the philosophy that this is their problem, and you have to let the addict get to the point where they want to change.

Not a lot of people can take the kids and leave because financially it’s not possible. However, if you’re tired of being the ‘bad guy,’ the two schools of thought are: 1) either you’re very firm and say, ‘We are leaving if you don’t stop, because your drinking is hurting the family and it’s dangerous to us,’; or 2) you say, ‘This is your path. We’re doing our own thing. When you are ready to change, you’ll change. We can’t make you want to change.’ Depending on the situation, one would work over the other and, again, you have to think about what means you have. But sometimes that bottom is expedited by disengagement, and in the end, you have to care for yourself and the rest of your family.”

Stand firm and take action
“Regardless of what tactics you use to set firm boundaries, you should know it’s always super complicated to do these things when it comes to family. But if you can break the cycle of addiction early, it can be very effective. If you have the means, getting someone to go away into treatment is really important, especially if they’re young. If it’s the beginning of addiction, doing something that’s very harsh and very whole-hearted can really help because when you start going in and out of rehab, it’s like you get into a pattern, over and over again.”

Find support for yourself
“You should definitely ensure you perform regular acts of self-care, along with practicing some level of detachment for your mental health. Going into a support group for family members is super important, and it’s one of the first things I might suggest. A support group like those through religious groups, clinics or Al-Anon will help you see you aren’t the only one going through this, that you can find support and suggestions from other people. It sets a precedent that you need to continue to take care of yourself while your loved one is working through the active part of their illness.”

Let’s talk about rehabilitation centers and twelve-step programs
“When it comes to recovery centers and programs, it’s my belief that rehab is good for the beginning, and then twelve step programs help reinforce the behavior after that. However, the approach is completely personal: some people will do fine going to twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous forever, and some people need rehab in the beginning and then twelve step work for the duration of their lives.  It really depends on personality, access, and what the individual needs.”

Remember that relapse is part of the process
“Sadly, getting sober or ‘straight’ from addiction is a process, and that means that relapsing is part of the process of getting sober. Know that it happens, but be sure to reinforce that a slip doesn’t mean all bets are off. The addict should know that one day doesn’t have to turn into a big, self-slogging, two-week-long binge. Just dust yourself off, go back, and start at day one.”

Addiction is a lifelong disorder, but recovery is absolutely possible
“One of the toughest things about addiction is remembering that it’s a lifelong condition. You’re always fighting against it; you don’t grow out of it, it doesn’t go away. Every day is Day One in some way, but if the addict does the work to recover and stay recovered, they can create beautiful lives beyond their imagining. Homes can be repaired, families can be rebuilt, and they can go on to live incredibly, beautiful, fruitful lives. But it takes work, dedication, love, willingness, and support.”