10 tips to help family members of addicts cope
In 2013, about 6.6 percent of the American population was dependent on alcohol or had difficulties relating to alcohol use, while more than 24 million people had abused an illicit drug in the prior month, says the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Families play a large part in the recovery of an addict. Every single one of these people had to fight back against that addiction, and chances are, nearly all of these people had family members and friends rooting for their eventual recovery.
Addictions don’t happen in silos. They happen in communities filled with loving people. When addictions strike, those family members and friends need to take steps to get the person they love into treatment programs that can help.
These family members and friends also need to take care of their own health, so they can provide the love and support addicted people need in order to heal. These are 10 tips that can help families to do just that.
Learn as much as possible about addiction.
Every day, research teams conduct in-depth studies about drugs of abuse. They’re learning more about how these substances interact with the cells inside the brain, and they’re using that knowledge to develop new treatments that might one day either treat or prevent addictions.
That’s the sort of knowledge that can help to boost a family’s sense of hope. With each tidbit they’re learning, they might feel more confident that the addiction can be both treated and conquered.
Education can also help families to escape the blame game. Rather than believing that the person’s addiction stems from weakness, willfulness, or stubbornness, they might learn how addictions stem from changes in brain chemistry and electrical impulse alterations. That data might help families to let go of their anger, so they can focus on healing.
There are all sorts of online resources that can help families to learn, and most modern bookstores are filled with books about the chemistry of addiction and the science behind addiction treatment. Families that are short on funds may balk at the idea of buying computers, data plans, and books, but they also have options. The Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests that about 61 percent of people ages 16 and up have a library card. That could open the gate to a great deal of knowledge families can access for free.
Connect with understanding peers.
It’s not easy to live with and/or support someone who has an addiction. As research in the journal Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy points out, an addiction in a close relative can serve as a stressful life situation that persists for years, and that long-term dysfunction can make it hard for families to communicate clearly. There’s a block of mistrust between every member of a family touched by addiction.
Connecting with peers may help, particularly if families use a trusted program like Al-Anon or Alateen. The idea here is to provide a safe, nonjudgmental space for family members to use in order to learn, discuss, and overcome an addiction unfolding in their midst.
People go to meetings like this for all sorts of personal reasons, but in a survey performed for an article in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, participants reported that they were drawn to meetings because they were hoping for help with:
- Better quality of life
- Fewer problems with the addicted person
- Lower levels of stress
- Improved psychological health
Those are lofty goals, and meetings really can help. By going to a meeting and listening to other family members, feelings of isolation and wonder may fade, and families may get the skills they need in order to handle the personal problems they’re facing.
Go to family therapy sessions.
Just as an addicted person changes in the course of an addiction, so does the family. Often, according to documents provided by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, family members become distant. They can’t talk openly about the issue that’s harming them, so they end up not talking about much of anything at all. Meanwhile, these same family members can blame themselves because the addiction is still in play, even though they want the problem to stop.
These silences and blame games can cripple a family when help is desperately needed. They may not have the tools to assist someone in active recovery, and they may not have the energy to help themselves.
A family therapy program, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, is designed to break down that sensation of distrust, guilt, and stress. Families that were once defined by anger and by addiction can be transformed into tight, well-oiled units that support one another, come what may.
Family therapy sessions can take time, and it can be a little tempting to skip a session or two, particularly for families with a number of conflicting appointments and agendas. However, this is work that’s vital to the health of everyone involved, so those meetings should be kept, if at all possible.
Prepare meals and eat them as a family.
In today’s modern, chaotic world, it’s all too easy to eat separately. One partner grabs a burger on the way home, while another snacks on salad at work, and the kids grab and heat readymade foods they can find in the freezer.
While schedules can get tight when families are dealing with addiction-related appointments, a family meal allows everyone in the family to reconnect at the end of a day that may have been stressful, lonely, and worrisome. Each meal helps to build upon the work done in family therapy, and the ritual of eating together can be really soothing, too. Even one meal together per week could have a great impact.
When an addicted person enters treatment and the family embarks on family care, the sense of hope everyone feels can be overwhelming. Finally, the addiction issue is being addressed. Finally, things will get better.
Unfortunately, it can take a long time for the changes and patterns associated with addiction to really change. Sometimes, that slow shift leads to disappointments.
Holidays, for example, can be fraught with fights. Families might be ready to accept an addicted person back into a celebration with open arms, while the addicted person might need time to mourn the loss of the target of the addiction. The family might expect excitement and participation, but as writers for Social Work Today point out, the addicted person might not be ready to deliver.
The key is to focus on the work part of recovery. It is a process, and it comes with a number of pitfalls. People in early recovery may make mistakes and they may not be their ideal selves, but families can still enjoy their time and their togetherness. Even if things aren’t up to a Norman Rockwell level, they can still be pleasant.
Stay in touch with personal joy.
Managing expectations is a little easier when families are responsible for their own bliss. That means every member of a recovering family needs to take time to do something that’s relaxing and fulfilling. That could include:
- Playing an instrument
- Taking nature photographs
- Volunteering with animals
- Playing with children
These are activities that can make the participant feel happy. They’re hobbies that are done to preserve a sense of efficacy and worth, and they could help to boost mental health, too.
For example, an author for Psychology Today reports that knitters get a boost of calming chemicals in their brain cells when they sit down with needles and yarn. The hobby is repetitive, and in time, those actions can be soothing. In a way, it’s a form of meditation that allows people to slow down their active brain cells. At the end of a knitting session, people have a product to show for the time they’ve spent. When life is full of activities that seem hard to complete and progress is difficult to see, a hobby that produces something tangible can be a great comfort.
Get regular exercise.
Starting off the day with a brisk run or ending the workday with a few laps in the pool may not be every family’s idea of a great time, but these exercise sessions could deliver big benefits. Exercise has the proven ability to reduce stress and depression. In fact, in a poll conducted by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, some 14 percent of all people exercise in order to cope with stress.
Stretching muscles and pushing tendons help to prompt the brain to release so-called pleasure chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin. Very brisk exercise sessions can help families to vent their worry and stress in healthful ways that don’t harm others and don’t cause lasting scars. Instead of yelling, they can run. Instead of pacing, they can do yoga. It’s a wonderful way to keep on track with healing, and it’s relatively easy to get started.
Adhere to a formal sleep/wake schedule.
Some of the most devastating episodes of drug abuse and addiction happen in the depths of night. It’s during this time that people with addictions meet dealers, overdose, stumble home from parties, or otherwise get into situations that family members must amend. It’s no surprise, then, that some families in the recovery process struggle with sleep. Parts of their brains are always waiting for the next night crisis to arise.
Regular sleep loss can be a devastating mood killer. The Harvard Medical School suggests, for example, that people who got only 4.5 hours of sleep per night for one week reported feeling higher levels of anger, stress, sadness, and mental exhaustion. People need sleep in order to feel their best, and families assisting with recovery need to be at the top of their games.
Creating a regular sleep schedule, in which bedtimes and wake times are firmly fixed, can help to prime the brain for deep sleep. When those hours roll around, the brain knows just what to do.
Schedule private therapy sessions.
While lifestyle alterations can be a big help for families in crisis, addictions can cause deep rifts and wounds that only therapy can heal. That’s why it’s vital for individual family members to meet with personal counselors that can help them to overcome and understand their personal issues. For some, those sessions might involve a number of stress-busting conversations.
A study of 100 family members of addicted people, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, found high levels of depression, stress, and poor overall health, when researchers compared their test results to those of controls. These caregivers were just worn out from everything they were asked to do as their addicted family member entered treatment. They may not have been able to either understand or tap into coping skills that could help.
A private therapy session is a safe place for stressed family members to unload and talk openly. There’s no judgment or blame here. There’s just a sense of openness and kindness, but there’s also a great deal of work done.
Private sessions typically follow a skills-based format, in which these caregivers learn more about how to deal with destructive thoughts and habits developed during years of addictive behavior. They might learn to meditate to handle stress, or they might work on assertiveness skills. They might do group work involving anger management, or they might learn how to let go of codependent behaviors, so they won’t feel responsible for the poor choices of others.
It takes time to go to a personal therapy session, and often, there’s homework to complete between the sessions, too. But this private and personal time comes with a number of very real benefits. Family members who spend their time in these sessions may get the help they need in order to help others, and they may find the strength and resolve that’s been missing up until this point.
Educate and advocate.
Stress and depression can stem from many different sources, but sometimes, family members feel the attacks most acutely when they come from the friends, business associates, and distant relatives they see on a regular basis.
These attacks come from all sides. To some people, addictions really are a form of weakness, and these people have no problem with pointing out that fact in casual conversations. To others, addictions are something family members should either fix or ignore. If they attempt to help, these people will label the family as “enabling.”
Sadly, too, some language that promotes addiction stigma comes from the medical community. As The Fix points out, teams tend to use terms like “clean” and “dirty” when they’re talking about addiction, and they may refer to the “war” on drugs.
It’s hard to stay positive in an environment like this, but families can be part of the change. Every time they hear a phrase like this, they can speak up about addiction truth. They can share some of the knowledge they’ve gleaned from private research, support groups, and therapy sessions. They can tell the people around them about their family’s work to overcome an addiction, and they could help to shift the nation’s conversation about addiction.
Advocating on behalf of addiction is brave, but it’s also a vital and health-affirming thing to do. Rather than staying silent and fuming, families that speak up are doing something to make things better, and those conversations could have a wonderful impact on a family’s mood.
How to support someone in recovery with Allison Walsh
Help is available
Families living with addiction don’t have to walk the path to recovery alone. There are a number of excellent treatment facilities that provide support both for the addicted person and for his/her family. The Recovery Village is one such facility.
Treatment teams build programs made to help individuals impacted by addiction, but teams also reach out to families, too. The Family Weekends at The Recovery Village are designed to allow family members to attend educational courses on addictions, and they can learn in the safety of either individual or group counseling sessions, too. Signing up is as easy as calling the number on this page. Admissions specialists are available to answer any questions.