As family members of addicts and alcoholics know, addiction affects the entire family system. Family members may be kept awake at night fearing the worst, keep strong boundaries, hoping this time it will work, give in and feel guilty, blame themselves, or cry in desperation for God to save their loved one. These and many other reactions plague family members of those addicted to substances, behaviors, and/or alcohol.
The truth is that the addicted person is a part of a system made up of many pieces, all influencing each other. It is common for a person to get clean and sober, go back home, and have a family member sabotage their recovery. You might ask how this could be. There are many reasons, but a few may be unhealthy family members, bitterness for the past, fear of the unknown, or guilt and shame.
At Genesis, we have found that family therapy gives a platform for the whole family to be on the same page, ready for the road that is needed for long-term recovery. During family therapy, each participating family member has a chance to share how the addiction has impacted them and the fears and anger that may still be present. A trained therapist helps the family member share and make sense of it all in a healthy way while still protecting the person with the addiction. Family therapy also allows family members to learn new skills such as communication, setting healthy boundaries, building trust, and planning what life will look like when the person comes back home.
A common topic in family therapy is healthy boundaries. This can be defined as each family member having the right to share their needs and wants without being harmed. With healthy boundaries, there is a clearer distinction of what is a person’s responsibility and what is not.
Family members are taught how to hold boundaries because this can often save an addict in the long run. Sometimes this is called “tough love” and although it can be difficult at first, it’s significantly important to long-term recovery. Overall, a person will not stop their addiction until the negatives outweigh the positives. That means family members shouldn’t protect an addicted person from their natural consequences. If a loved one protects them from consequences, keeping them from feeling the negatives, the addiction is dragged out longer. This may be very difficult for family members as well as the addicted person, who may feel like their family has turned on them, but it may be the only way for recovery to be possible.
Another phrase important when setting healthy boundaries is “never do for a person what they can do for themselves.” This is also important in building back the self-esteem and confidence of the person recovering from an addiction. They may be used to others rescuing them and it may be overwhelming to take responsibility for their own actions, but with healthy boundaries, the person realizes what they are truly capable of.
Lastly, healthy boundaries include realizing what one is responsible for and what is out of their control. For example, a person may be responsible for making a good decision to protect their recovery but not for how others feel about that decision. A person can share compassion for other people’s feelings, but cannot hold the weight of those feelings on their shoulders. Those feelings belong to that other person. The process of filtering responsibility is difficult but a highly-skilled therapist can help the family through this process. Depending on the time frame of treatment with Genesis, therapists may make a referral for continued family therapy outside of treatment.
Family members may have never experienced addiction previously and may be unaware of the biology, patterns of behavior, and what they can do that will be healthy and unhealthy on the road to recovery. Family therapy is often a time for partners, parents, and other family members to learn about addiction and the common patterns to watch for.
Education often creates a better understanding of the biology of addiction, creating compassion for the battle the person is going through. It is not uncommon for family members to think that the person doesn’t love them enough to stop, not fully understanding how ingrained the addiction may be in their loved one’s genetics or biology. Once a person has spent some time in recovery, family members may think relapse is unlikely and yet relapse is commonly a part of the long road. At times, the months in treatment, the time spent away at meetings, and other patterns the individual has begun in order to protect their recovery may feel selfish to family members as they hold more responsibilities for parenting, work, and more. In family therapy, groups discuss these topics and put a game plan in place before the participant transitions out of treatment.