Seeking Clarity In Dependency's Mire: 5 Myths About Addiction & The Family To Debunk
Despite the country making strides in reducing mental-health stigma, covering addiction treatment services, and increasing access to treatment, harmful myths still interfere with people getting help with their addictions and getting well.
With that in mind, it's vital that those who care for—or about—a person suffering from addiction to know how to both help the addicted person and get help for themselves when they can.
Myth #1: The Victim Has To Want Help
The foremost major myth—one that has proved mightly pervasive—is that the addicted person has to want help and singlehandedly initiate the process of seeking treatment.
Families may need to work with an interventionist or with a counselor of their own over a period of weeks or months in order to develop strategies to get help for the addicted person—and the entire family.
A 2018 meta-study found that family involvement can actually increase access to treatment as well as improving individual coping and treatment outcomes.
Myth #2: The Family Is To Blame For The Addiction
The second harmful myth is that families should somehow be responsible for the behavior and recovery of their loved ones.
Sometimes, the person with substance use disorder may verbally blame others for their use and its effects. Guilt—real or imagined—may lead to "enabling" behaviors, which can be classified as anything a family member does to soften the consequences of the behavior of a person with an addiction.
In my college years, I totaled a Chevy Impala at 4 a.m. three blocks from my house. My father was able to get to the car before the police and act as though he had been driving to prevent a DUI.
It was another five years before I found help for addiction when a legal consequence much earlier might have brought help to the family—for my parents as well as myself.
Granted, associations exist between early childhood trauma and subsequent addiction—and trauma work is often a vital part of recovery. By the time someone's addiction shows up, that family is usually long in the rear-view mirror and the present family members were not part of that equation.
Viewing addiction as the disease that it is takes blame and guilt out of the picture for both the family members and the person with an addiction. Al-Anon, the mutual help group for family members, has long stated the view that addiction is something family members did not cause, cannot control and cannot cure.
Myth #3: Addiction Is Solely The Addict's Problem
Some families would be content to drop their loved one off at a treatment center and come back a month later to pick up the new and renewed person.
This means a missed opportunity for family members to begin their own healing and to rebuild a new relationship with their loved one from a point of health. Also, family participation improves treatment outcomes—often drastically.
Further, living with an addicted person forces one question to their own sanity, deny their own needs and experiences and live in a constant state of vigilance, mistrust and suspicion.
Some family members report when their spouse or child came to treatment, they had their first sound sleep in months or years just knowing that their loved one was safe.
The feeling of responsibility for the life of another—the constant uncertainty, not to mention the feelings of frustration over ruined finances and broken promises—affects relationships on many levels.
Any discussion may lead to escalation or disaster, so family members learn to curb communication.
Myth #4: The Family Only Needs To Participate During The Course Of Treatment
This short-changes the family member on their own health trajectory.
For many years, I knew a remarkable woman I will call Alice. Alice began AA and Al-Anon when her son was arrested and ultimately sent to prison for a drug offense. She made a bargain with God: "Keep my son safe and I will take a meeting into the women's prison." Five days after her son entered the penitentiary, he was murdered.
At first, Alive felt betrayal and confusion. But she kept her part of the bargain, and for two years carried that meeting into a place where women desperately needed recovery. She maintained both Al-Anon and AA meeting attendance throughout the rest of her life.
While never filling the void left by her son's death, Alice's participation in the community and self-help groups became the cornerstone of growth and peace that allowed her to work through her grief and live a life of purpose and meaning.
Myth #5: Treatment Is Permanently Transformational
It happens in many cases, certainly, that treatment is the dividing line between a life of risk and emptiness and a generative, fully engaged existence thereafter.
But that isn't the norm. More often healing happens in stages, over time and in community with others. "Others" includes family, peer support, professional counseling at each stage of recovery and continued stability at home and in health.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) identifies the pillars of Health, Home, Purpose, and Community in a person's ongoing need for recovery support. Families derive the same benefit in using the pillars of support, regardless of the treatment outcomes for their loved ones.
Recognizing that healing takes time allows people to utilize professional supports in clinically directed recovery.
And these need to work their power until folks suffering from addiction gain the experience and muscle memory to practice self-directed recovery within their communities, faiths and families.