Family Addiction – A Tough Nut to Crack

Guest author – Lisa Fredriksen from breakingthecycles.com:

I was 49 years old when one of my loved ones entered a residential alcohol treatment program and I found myself plunged into a whole other world – a world that included terms and concepts like codependency, adult children of alcoholics, 12-step programs, co-addictions, dual diagnosis and the role a family member has in the denial that protects a loved one’s drinking. The family addiction world was a world I found confusing and overwhelming as I learned just how many of my loved ones had an alcohol problem and what that had meant in my life.

True to my nature, I began my quest for deeper understanding in the same way I’d approached my six other published nonfiction books and numerous articles. I immersed myself in research, intent on learning as much as I could about the subject – in this case alcoholism and treatment programs – and then all of the other issues that emerged as I tried to understand why a loved one drinks too much and why someone like myself puts up with it for so long. I started attending Al- Anon meetings, doubled my individual therapy sessions and attended family-help group sessions at the treatment center, as well.

codependencyMy book, If You Loved Me, You’d Stop! What You Really Need To Know When A Loved One Drinks Too Much, and my blog, www.breakingthecycles.com, are the culmination and continuation of my discoveries. I hope that by sharing what I have learned, others – whether a parent, friend, sibling, spouse or child – will find the tools they need to live their lives.

I share this information because I wish I had known it, that it had been openly and freely talked about, long before I’d spent decades grappling with my various loved ones’ drinking. I try keep my shares (including my book) very short and simple. I know, myself, that when I first started looking for information, I was frustrated with the variety and depth of the books and research on what I was striving to understand – excessive drinking (alcohol abuse), alcoholism, co-addictions, adult children of alcoholics, codependency, dual diagnosis, how to help the alcoholic stop drinking, how to heal the family, how to talk to your children, family in recovery – and the list went on and on.

For now, I’d like to leave you with my top key discoveries:

1. Alcoholism is one of the diseases of addiction – a chronic relapsing disease. Check out www.hbo.com/addiction for a wealth of information. It’s produced by HBO, NIAAA, NIDA and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
2. To begin treating addiction, the substance of abuse must be stopped in its entirety in order to allow the structural and chemical changes in the brain to change and recover.

These first two discoveries freed me from my continued efforts to try control my loved ones’ drinking and thus stop my nagging, raging, deal-making and shaming – the behaviors I’d been using in order to “help” them stop [hence the title of my book, If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!…]. They also allowed me to respect the person but hate the disease and know that until that person came to grips with the power of addiction, they would/will continue to drink, no matter how hard they try to control their drinking.

3. Other family members need help, too, in order to change some of the behaviors they’ve adopted in order to survive but that are actually getting in the way of their living healthy, happy, fulfilling lives, regardless of whether their loved one stops drinking or not.
4. Alcoholism is a young person’s disease. Due to brain imaging technologies of the past fifteen years or so, neuroscientists have been studying how the brain develops. According to NIAAA, half of alcoholics were addicted by age 21 and two-thirds were addicted by age 25. Click here to better understand why.
5. Having a dual diagnoses (a mental illness, such as depression, bipolar, ADHD or PTSD) and an addiction (to alcohol or drugs) is common. Click here for information.

How can you offer addiction help?

The question that seems to be on everybody’s mind (except perhaps that of the addict), is:

SO HOW CAN I HELP ?!?!?

– One of the first things you must do if you want to help someone with an addiction is to educate yourself. Obviously, you are already beginning the process by reading blogs like this along with, hopefully, finding other resources online. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) have some great information that will no doubt be useful!

– While you’ll learn a lot throughout this process, don’t expect that the addict will be as excited about your learning as you may be. You are learning so that you understand what addiction entails. Remember that addiction is a disease of the brain and that the drugs, or alcohol, have a grip on your loved one that is more than simply moral. There are actual changes in neurological (brain) circuits that are caused by heavy drug use and that affect the user’s ability to quit (look for my educational posts on drug addiction).

Behavior is guided by rewards and punishments. This is something that we’ve learned over and over in psychological research. While it may seem difficult, decide on what you’re willing to accept and what you aren’t, and stick by those rules. I don’t necessarily believe in the punishment idea in this context because it can seriously strain relationships. However, if you go the the mostly-reward-route, make sure that you only reward behavior that is healthy, like decisions not to use. If “using behavior” is sometimes rewarded (like when you feel really bad for the user), the mixed message will make it much harder to change the behavior later.

– I also don’t necessarily believe in the al-anon method of detachment. My own story would have turned out very differently had my family not been there to catch me when I had my last, huge, fall. If you choose to detach though, decide for yourself if this is a temporary solution or if you want to do so permanently. Drug users are great manipulators and if you think that a night of “I’m not talking to you,” may be enough, you are sorely mistaken…

Intervention Hell

– When it comes to interventions, everyone always thinks of the stereotypical kind now immortalized in the A&E television show. That sort of intervention is known as th Johnson Institute method. Nevertheless, it’s far from the only one and has actually been shown to be marginally effective. Remember that any attempt to alter behavior is considered an intervention. The act of rewarding positive decisions I’d mentioned above would alter behavior in ways that are slower, but most likely more long lasting, all while introducing less strain on the relationship, at least in the short run. Another type of technique that I prefer when it comes to getting resistant addicts into treatment is called Motivational Interviewing. Make sure to ask anyone you approach for treatment whether they use this technique. It’s been shown to greatly improve addicts’ own motivation to enter treatment and when they want it themselves they’re more likely to benefit from it.

As always, if you have specific questions, please feel free to contact me.

Be strong, and most importantly, don’t blame yourself for what’s going on, but be aware of your role in the relationship and know what you can change about your part.

Good Luck!