I have spent the past 23 years working in the field of addiction. The first 20 years were spent working with the ‘dependant’ person. The past 3 years I have primarily focused on working with the family members of the addict. I am frequently asked what made me choose to move my focus from one client group to the other. Well two things happened. The first being that I recognised there was a whole heap of help for the addicted person if they chose to tap into that support. That support comes in the shape of free community groups such as narcotics anonymous, cocaine anonymous Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART recovery to name but a few. There is also a plethora of drug services in the community all fighting for the same drug and alcohol dependant client group and a surplus of treatment centres that can either be accessed through social service funding or via private payment plans.
More often than not it would be the family member that would pick up the phone to me and ask for help for their loved one. During these conversations I would invariably hear how the behaviour of the substance abuser was impacting on the emotional well being of not only the individual family member I was speaking to but also the impact on the family as a whole.
Drug abuse puts a lot of unwanted stress on mums, dads, siblings, grand parents —anyone who is part of the drug users life.
Some of the things family members may experience when a loved one uses drugs or alcohol are:
• They can no longer count on them to do the things they say they will do
• They may become aware that their family member is stealing to buy substances
• They may become aware their family member is telling lies to cover up what they are doing
• They might experience them being arrested and convicted for crimes they are committing to buy drugs
• They may experience them getting drink/drug driving convictions
• They may experience them not coming home when they say they say they will.
• They may experience them behaving in ways that they don’t recognise.
• They may experience them becoming more aggressive in their desire to deny there is a problem.
The main thing I hear family members experiencing is a doubt of their own experiences. Addicts are master manipulators. They will deny there is a problem to the end of the earth making it seem like you are going mad when you confront their reality. They will tell you it’s you who has the problem. That you are paranoid, making things up, persecuting them (they love being the victim). Often it takes a serious incident to occur for the family members to really accept there is a problem despite what their loved one has been telling them.
So at that point when they pick up the phone to me and ask if I can help their ‘addict’ my first question is how is this situation impacting on you. I usually receive two reactions, the first is ‘ oh I’m ok, it’s my son, husband, brother who has got the problem’ or ‘it’s really difficult but if you can only help so and so all will be well’. My response to this is ‘Who listens to you? Who helps you when it feels all your dreams are slipping away? Who helps you to put boundaries in place and helps you keep them when you feel guilty and manipulated?’ The answer is a resounding ‘no one truly understands’ Well of course they don’t and even if they did how you can talk about your deepest darkest shameful secrets to them. I have spent my life learning about addiction and I understand it’s complexities and how truly difficult it is to grasp why someone is destroying their lives. If you ask the addict do they understand their behaviour the chances are that they don’t so how can a family member have any hope of understanding this? My role at this point is to discuss what help is available for their loved one but also to offer support to them in helping them restore some emotional well being to the family. It is some of the most rewarding therapeutic work I have ever experienced when you begin to see family members letting go of guilt and responsibility for their concerned other. They begin to understand that addiction isn’t a voluntary choice. It is a disease that follows a certain pathway that without intervention is chronic. Helping family members understand the nature of addiction and its origins allows them to recognise it’s not their fault and that their responsibility is to look after their own well being first and foremost. It is often in this process of looking after themselves that their family member starts to recognise they are in fact responsible for their own recovery.
The second thing that happened to make me direct my focus more towards family members was more personal. 25 years ago I moved away from my own substance addiction and into a recovery process. During that time I experienced the effect that my eldest sons fathers drug addiction had on my family. The effects have been very difficult primarily for my son. He has continually been let down by his father. I have educated my boy around addiction being an illness and thus he understands that his father doesn’t love drugs more than him but that his dad is in fact compelled to use substances to survive unless he seeks help. This has left my son in a difficult position. How can he feel angry, hurt, let down and betrayed by a person who is sick? But that is exactly what addiction does. I can clearly see how my son would benefit from therapy to resolve these difficult and uncomfortable feelings that cause him difficulties in many of his other relationships. How I have wished that my son would pick up the phone and access the kind of support that I and other family therapists offer.
And then on an even more personal note I myself resumed using drugs after a decade of being sober. I believed I had been cured and that I could now drink ‘like a lady’. How wrong was I. Nobody in my family could understand why I was using addictively again. I had gained so much in my life over the past ten years. I had three beautiful children, a partner I loved, a successful career. Why in the hell would I throw that all away? What I had failed to grasp and what my family did not understand was that during my previous years of using drugs I had built up neural pathways that meant when I use a substance (any mood altering substance) it releases such a powerful neurotransmitter to my dopamine receptors that I have become biochemically programmed to continue to use until an intervention is made. The type of intervention that needs to happen when I start using is usually of such a severe nature that I have little choice left but to seek help and begin a process of change. Telling me to stop using because of my kids does not cut it. Tell me you’ve taken my kids until I get clean and I may start to make those changes! The impact this period of using had on my family was so severe that it caused both my mother and father to become physically unwell. My brother told me years later that every time the phone rang during this time he feared he was going to hear that I had died. My eldest son who had already been affected by his fathers misuse became even more damaged; the one person in his life that he could depend on was more interested in selling his Xbox for drug money. My two youngest children who remember little of this time are still affected in more subtle ways. My 16 year old daughter said to me just a few weeks ago on New Year’s Eve how awful it is for her to think of her mother abusing and hurting herself in those ways and how she has to at times dig deep to use the mum she knows on a daily basis as her role model, not the drug addled mother of her very early memories. My partner was hurt in such a way that to this very day I catch him looking at me to see if everything is ok. Drug addiction tears family’s apart. He and I split up for seven years and only now over the past 3 or 4 years are we slowly building back up that relationship.
I have been back in recovery for many years now but I still see the trauma it has caused to all those that loved me. During that period of relapse my oldest and dearest friend would call me every night to check if I was ok. Another close friends had to be the one to confront me and say that she could no longer stand by and say nothing if I did not seek help. She felt she needed to call social services. No friend should ever be put in that position. No family members should have their lives torn apart by addiction – but they are. Every day families in the Hale, Wilmslow area of Cheshire, where I work, call me and ask for help. Addiction knows no boundaries – it effects middle class, affluent families in just the same way as it tears any other family apart. There is often a fallacy surrounding addiction that it only effects the poorer sections of society. Addiction does not care what colour, class or creed you are. It is an illness not a moral weakness. It has to be treated professionally just as the family needs to be treated professionally in order for the whole family to get well.
So it is the combination of very little help being available to family members and my own experience as both a family member and an addict that has affected her family that has made me passionate about helping this often forgotten group of people.
If you are affected by a loved ones use of substance please understand that you also deserve help.
If you need help with either your own addiction or are being affected by a loved ones addiction please contact me on 07983726647 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Victoria Abadi, family and addiction specialist.