By Rodney Robertson, D.Min., M.A., M.Div., Director of Family Services at The Ranch
The person who comes into a drug rehab program for treatment is the “designated” or “identified” patient, but the truth is addiction is a family affair. Although one person is identified as having a problem, the family is a system of interconnected parts so what happens with one member impacts the entire family in some way.
In some cases, addiction is the result of early family trauma or family life may have contributed in some way. In other cases, addiction develops independent of the family but nevertheless impacts the roles they take on and the way they interact with one another. While a person is in treatment, their illness is viewed entirely from their perspective, but it is important to also bring in their family members. They hold a big piece of the puzzle. Not only can they offer important insights and feedback, but they also need to begin healing from the impact of addiction.
In family therapy, the focus is on looking at how family members interact, improving communication and healing the family system. Here are some of the important issues explored with families dealing with addiction:
- Fostering an understanding. One of the things I like to say to the people I work with is that change is always possible, but you can’t change something you don’t understand. You first have to understand what the problem is and where it comes from. It is usually trauma-based; the person has faced some form of trauma in their life and the addiction is how they’ve coped with that trauma. It is important to get to the root of it.
- Creating a safe space for secrets. Not everyone is anxious to get into a therapy session with their family. The client’s resistance is usually based on the fact that they don’t want the truth to be known. They’re hiding secrets from the therapist or clinical team and they’re reluctant to get mom and dad or husband or wife involved because then something is going to be revealed. It may be a secret that led them to use drugs or alcohol or other situations for which they carry great shame and guilt. By creating a safe space for being open and honest without judgment, healing can begin.
- Helping everyone take ownership. In the minds of most family members, it’s only the addict who is sick. Typically they see the client as the one that has all the problems. They think they need to fix that In reviewing family history and events, it becomes clear that there are often people back home who also have issues they need to work through and heal. They just don’t realize it.
- Getting beyond denial. Sometimes it is not easy for family members to accept that the addicted loved one is sick – and it’s even harder to think they could be playing a role. The family often needs to have someone neutral, like a therapist, help break through denial. And the next step is to help them realize that they may also have to make some adjustments. In the safe space of therapy, they can begin to see their own role in the problem as well as the solution.
- Moving past avoidance. Families may have coped for a long time by avoiding the problem. Maybe mom or dad worked longer hours or a spouse stayed extra busy with the kids to not have to face the truth about the addict in their lives. They need to be assured that they didn’t cause it or create it. They’re not to blame for it. But they may have contributed to keeping the family system going in such ways that enabled the addiction. They have to summon the courage to look at things with open eyes.
- Helping find a solution. It is important to bring people and their denial together in one place, so that they see how they’ve been impacted. In that same space they can begin to see ways to foster and support change. A therapist is often a guide who can point them in the right direction so that they can collaborate on solutions.
- Putting an end to enabling. Although they’re often responsible and committed to finding a solution, sober family members are not meant to be superheroes. They can’t fix the addiction. That’s not their responsibility. It’s important that everyone learn the fine line between helping and enabling. Trying to do everything for the addict will backfire and codependency destroys relationships even further.
- Learning to listen to each other. Bringing families together in a therapeutic setting is a way for everyone’s story to be heard. Family members can learn to listen to each other and not react with anger, judgment, criticism or sarcasm. Through empathy and compassion they are better able to find solutions.
It’s not always possible to bring the family together. Sometimes the locale or the situation makes it difficult for them to be present. In those cases we try to schedule sessions by phone. In the long run, it’s important to make the effort to get loved ones involved because it facilitates healing for all.