Drug addiction is an illness that affects a sizeable portion of the adult population, making it no surprise that nearly half of Americans have either a close friend or family member who is or has been addicted to drugs. More than an illness based on choice, addiction is an illness of chance, not something to be blamed on morality (or lack thereof), but something to be attributed to a mixture of environmental stressors, genetic factors, and the availability of drugs (from alcohol to Xanax and illicit opioids).
Yet while addiction continues to be misunderstood and often misattributed to only the vile and the evil, it’s our best friends, our parents, our children, our uncles and our aunts who become addicted to drugs for one reason or another. Some become addicted because of a broken leg. Others become addicted after a broken heart. The reasons are countless, but thankfully, the options for treatment are nearly as plentiful.
Addiction treatment today has evolved into a sizable repertoire of therapies and techniques that can be applied not only to individuals, but to groups as well. Experts and doctors understand that to effectively treat an addiction, two things must be taken into consideration. First, addiction is a chronic illness, and a focus should be placed on managing it, rather than looking for an impossible cure. Second, addiction doesn’t occur within a vacuum, and every case must be evaluated for any and all contributing factors, working to determine a person’s mental and physical health, medical history, family history, relationships, job security, and more. A big part of effectively treating addiction is tackling it as a family.
Addiction as a Family Disease
There are several factors that go towards describing addiction as a ‘family disease’. For one, addiction does run in the family. Inheritability is a factor for addiction, as research shows that individuals with a family history of a certain kind of addiction are more likely to develop said addiction. This may be in part because their genes make them particularly vulnerable to drug use, or because of the environment created by growing up alongside a display of drug use and addiction.
On the other hand, having an addict in the family affects everyone. More so than many other illnesses, addiction can come with a long list of tragedies attached to it. Addiction can wreck a family financially, emotionally, and physically faster than many other crises. And as such, it’s also important to recognize the critical role that a family plays in addressing and treating addiction.
Assigning blame in most cases of addiction is meaningless. There are too many factors to concretely point the finger at any one single cause for all this pain, and the opioid crisis alone has grown into such a massive behemoth that policy changes are not enough to properly quell the issue. It has to be addressed at home, within the community, in schools and town halls, and across the country, with a focus on providing genuinely effective physical and mental healthcare to those affected by the disease, meaning both the addicts and their loved ones.
Considering Family Therapy
One option for helping families better connect with their loved ones in recovery and better contribute to their fight against addiction is to employ family therapy. Family therapy involves the family in the healing process, addressing issues at home through the expertise and guidance of an experienced third party, and helping families develop techniques to deal with the challenges presented by addiction. As per the SAMHSA, one clear goal of family therapy is help families “become aware of their own needs and aid in the goal of keeping substance abuse from moving from one generation to another.”
For family therapy to be effective, a family has to be ready to work together. Not all families are ready to do so. Some families may be split between those ready to help their loved one, and those who feel that the addict should be excluded from the family. There are also cases where a family is little more than blood ties, where relatives hurt one another physically and/or emotionally, and where ‘home’ is a case of ongoing partner abuse.
It’s important to have a more flexible definition of family in these cases. We all need a family, but it need not be our biological one. Addicts who feel endangered by their relatives must seek distance, ideally among friends or other relatives. Toxicity in the family is unfortunately not an uncommon problem and can contribute heavily to an addiction.
Spending More Time Living Together
It’s incredibly easy these days to isolate yourself from family. Regardless of how many family members live, eat, and sleep under the same roof, communication has dropped both in depth and frequency across several generations. For some families, the best way to fight something like an addiction is to incorporate the recovering addict into family life and work together to truly forge family life into something more meaningful.
Begin by planning and making meals together, taking on the daily and weekly tasks of cleaning up as a family, distributing chores but also working on family projects. Nobody likes to be forced to dress up for the annual family photo, but there are other opportunities to come together and genuinely have fun. One option for families with a little more in the yearly budget is to spend time together in an offline vacation. Make it a rule every now and again to keep the phones off.
Being a part of something is important to a recovering addict. It’s important because many struggle to redefine themselves after beginning their recovery, and knowing they are an accepted and meaningful part of their family can help them start somewhere by remembering that no matter what, as a result of having a loving family, and being surrounded by feelings of unconditional love, they will always have a positive identity as a brother, sister, son, daughter, father, or mother.
Having that positive identity to start with can help a recovering addict stay committed to working on themselves, adding to that statement with other things, from worker to passionate artist, athlete, or student.
Know What to Expect
Treating a drug addiction is still a long road. While recovery is effective, it takes time to fully develop the toolset necessary to separate from addiction – and even then, relapses are likely. It’s just as important to learn to overcome relapses and learn from them as it is to choose going into rehab on day one.
As such, there’s some degree of patience needed when helping a loved one going through recovery. Likewise, recovering addicts must understand that their family members will have moments of frustration, and there will be arguments and heated conversations. As long as the core of the family remains intact – the sentiment that everyone is in it together – recovery is survivable in the long-term and may even bring a family further together.