What does it mean when someone says that addiction is a family disease? Essentially it means that everyone in the family has been impacted by their loved one’s addiction. The family has: made excuses for them, endured abusive behavior, enabled them, or tried to force them to stop drinking/using. Family & Child Development’s Registered Marriage & Family Therapy Intern Joan Sonnier agrees that addiction is a family disease.

“You never have just one person in the family that’s hurting. It affects everybody and everybody’s been impacted by it,” Sonnier says.

If one family member struggles with addiction, the entire family is affected. So, it stands to reason that the recovery of an addict must also involve the entire family.

Left in Limbo

When a family member decides they are ready for treatment, as discussed in our previous blog, they will go to a facility on their own. In rehab, they commit to in-depth healing with therapists, psychologists and counselors. They focus on getting to the root of their problems, and learning tools and lifestyle changes to aid in their recovery and abstinence from substance use.

Hopefully, they return home well-informed and changed as a person. What they don’t often realize is that their family has been left in limbo. Their parents, children and spouses have been holding their breath, unsure of the future and still wounded from the past. They have been in a “holding pattern,” and won’t have undergone the spiritual growth that the family member in rehab has experienced. They may or may not have had contact with their loved one in rehab, and may have no idea what to expect upon their return home.

“I tell clients, when you’re in rehab, you’re getting all this information, but remember that your family is where they were when you left them,” Sonnier says.

Learn About Addiction

The best thing to do is get informed. Family members can learn about addiction online, from trusted resources. A good place to start is the rehab facility that the family member attended. Check out their website and resources, or call and ask someone at the facility where you can get reliable information.

When the family member returns home, keep learning together. Practice open, honest communication and ask about what they learned in rehab. “I tell my clients, you have all this new information; you have a responsibility to start to teaching your family what you’ve learned about addiction,” Sonnier says.

Sonnier also recommends family members attend Al-Anon meetings. Al-Anon is an anonymous support group for family members of alcoholics and addicts. The group provides people with information about living with addiction or living with a loved one in recovery. Often family members blame themselves in some way for their loved one’s addiction. Al-Anon teaches the Three C’s: as a family member, you didn’t cause the addiction, you can’t control the addiction, and you can’t cure the addiction. Sometimes being a family member of an addict carries shame, so connecting with people from similar circumstances can be beneficial.

Prepare Your Home

You might feel like you are invading the space of your loved one, but it can be a trigger for someone to come home to alcohol or drug paraphernalia. A ‘sober home’ is often recommended by rehabilitation facilities. Get rid of all alcohol, drugs and paraphernalia. Check in hiding spots like closets, under beds and in basements. Make sure everyone in your household is on board with maintaining a sober home. This is especially important for family members of alcoholics to understand, as alcohol is a legal and socially acceptable substance. Explain that the affected family member needs to have their home be a safe space, where they are not tempted, and do not have to use their willpower constantly to resist alcohol. If there are certain people who might come over and trigger the affected family member, consider having a conversation with them before your loved one returns home.

Participate in Family & Couples Therapy

Sonnier, who has worked in rehabilitation facilities with addicts and with their families, recommends family therapy sessions when someone returns home from rehab. “We will look at family relationships and start setting a foundation where the family can start to grow and recover. We need to treat the whole family,” Sonnier says.

Sonnier believes it’s of particular importance for the spouse/partner of the addict to have an opportunity to be honest with the addict. Often times the spouse is afraid to upset the newfound stability in their partner, and might repress their feelings. This pain and fear might not be noticed by the partner in recovery, since they are very self-focused on their inner struggles with addiction. It’s important that you get your feelings out in the open, even if it’s uncomfortable. As a family member or spouse, the person in recovery needs to hear what it was like living with them. This is an important step before the relationship can move forward.

Sonnier says, “Couples need to find a place where they can connect and communicate, so they can start the healing process.” If you would like to discuss addictions or family therapy with a counselor, call us at Family & Child Development, and we can help guide you on the right path to a healthy home.