There is an adage in recovery circles regarding family therapy which says, “The patient is the family, and the family is the patient.”
Those of us who work with individuals recovering from substance and alcohol use disorders know too well that the family is often in as much turmoil as the identified person with the substance issue. The reality is that often times the addicted person is actually the whistle blower in the family. This is the person who has said by their behavior that something is very out of balance or terribly wrong in the family system. The drinking, using, or unwanted compulsive habits are simply their warning signal that there might be deeper unaddressed trouble at home.
Unfortunately, many families approach taking a loved one to treatment as though they are dropping off a car to be overhauled and hope to pick it up in twenty-eight days all “fixed.” As we who have been in these situations know, it doesn’t exactly work that way. What is often even more surprising to families is that a good treatment plan will actually include them and integrate them at some point into the care plan of their loved one.
Families and family members have often taken on roles during years of dysfunction that must be identified and challenged through a good family therapy program. The enablers, the fixers, the over-achievers, and the person who sets the emotional thermostat all have to be helped in the process of letting go of their old paradigms in order to allow the recovering person to integrate back into the family in a healthy way without picking up their former roles in the family play.
Family days in the treatment program can be emotional, fearful, and even enlightening as past experiences are exposed and discussed. Resentments are revealed that have been used to justify all kinds of addictive and manipulative behaviors that may be going on apart from the person with the identified problem. There may even be more than one addict in the home. There may be multiple addictions, mental illness, trauma, or abuse. Even rage, inappropriate emotional enmeshments and various relational alliances all have to be identified and called out. Ultimately, the addict realizes that they are not the only problem in the family and that they are a part of a larger dynamic in need of guidance and insight.
Secrecy and emotional bargaining within families are inevitably going to be addressed as well. Addiction flourishes in secrecy and silence. Good family therapy realizes that exposing our secrets is the beginning of living in an integrated healthy system. We are only as sick as our secrets as they say, and that goes for families as well, not just addicts.
The best way we can care for the ones we love is to be willing to take the vulnerable journey into restoration with them. Allowing ourselves to hear the hard things about ourselves is the beginning of being able to own our part in the bigger problem. A good family therapist can help gently nudge and guide loved ones down the path together without focusing on blame and shame but rather the hope that a healthy intact family system is in place at the end of the process.
Wish Recovery offers families the support they need to be understanding and empathic witnesses to the needs of their loved one as they embark on a new life together leading them across the bridge of fear into a place of hope and trust.
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