Today’s guest blog post was written by Linda Mikesic, LCSW, LCDC, Director of Clinical Services at Austin Recovery. Linda is going to share more about family dynamics and family systems with respect to recovery. Take it away, Linda!
Families in Recovery
Linda Mikesic, LCSW, LCDC
Austin Recovery Director of Clinical Services
According to a 1991 California study, about 43% of U.S. adults – 76 million individuals – have been exposed to alcoholism in the family. That is, in the last few decades, about 76 million people either: grew up with an alcoholic, married an alcoholic or problem drinker, or had a blood relative who was an alcoholic or problem drinker. It is important to consider treatment and/or self-help services for the family members of alcoholics and problem drinkers, as these circumstances stress the entire family system. The more enmeshed the family becomes in their addict’s life, the more destructive the family relationships can be, both for the addict and for his/her family. Therefore it is important to consider some form of treatment or self-help program for family members.
Growing up in a household with active alcoholism can be traumatic, scary and crisis-driven. Family members learn the fight/flight/freeze response to frightening or upsetting events in the household. Rules are inconsistent or confusing and children often adopt hyper-responsible or parenting roles at an early age. A sense of healthy autonomy is often non-existent. Children who grow up in such confusion often become adults believing that sharing feelings is a sign of weakness and that going outside the family system for help is disloyal. This increases the risk that these individuals will also become addicted to substances. The rule in families becomes: Don’t talk, feel, trust, ask or think, because these activities are simply not safe.
Families are complex, interactive, and organized. The family system has dynamics unique to the family – characteristics that the individuals do not necessarily exhibit except when the family system is put together in an interactive context. When alcoholism is added to the family system, the family’s ability to manage emotions and a range of interactions is jeopardized, and the family makes adjustments to avoid change or conflict, or even admitting that there is a problem. Addiction, emotional intensity and dysfunctional behaviors go hand in hand. Usually, for the alcoholic to maintain the belief that his/her drinking is not a problem, the family must collude. The alcoholism consumes the family and everyone has a part in the problem. Family beliefs and unhealthy roles allow the addictive behavior to continue. Many family members of a chemically dependent individual deny their loved one’s addiction for a long time, and sometimes an earth-shattering event has to occur to force the family to face the reality of the situation. Even then, because the family has forgotten its identity apart from the addiction, some families strongly believe that they cannot be happy unless their loved one stops drinking or drugging. Attention to the addicted family member intensifies and a family member’s need to control is “off the chart”. The family is overwhelmed by the addiction and often individual needs for the rest of the family members are put on hold. The focus must return to valuing each individual in the family and honoring good boundaries and positive family dynamics.
With help and support, families can become healthier themselves even if their loved one continues to live in his/her active addiction. One of the first steps for families struggling with addiction is to become educated about what addiction is, how it affects individuals and how it can affect family systems. In this respect, addiction is similar to other diseases, as the more you understand about it, the more likely you are to become part of the solution rather than engaging in behaviors that maintain the disease, such as enabling. Learning the difference between enabling and supporting your loved one is an essential part of families in recovery. Support allows for natural consequences to occur by respecting accountability for all family members. “Bailing out” a loved one robs him/her of the consequences necessary for positive change. Families often accept behaviors of their addicted one that would be inexcusable if it were someone outside the family system or if addiction was not involved. For each family member to be happy, one must identify where the line is, the boundary, and respect this boundary when it is crossed by allowing consequences. Allowing crises to happen can be very helpful recovery responses. Supportive behaviors also include verbalizations of encouragement when your loved one is making even small steps towards recovery. However, if you are in a place of anger, setting healthy distance is necessary to allow individual work to occur before addressing the situation from a place of emotions. Scolding, criticizing, shaming, and rejecting are never effective ways to encourage a person to change. “If you can’t help an addict, at least don’t hurt him.”
Families in recovery focus on the family rather than just the individual. Each person in the family system is equally important and has the right to set healthy boundaries and not to self-destruct if another family member is in crisis such as active relapse. Establishing clear and flexible boundaries between subsystems is important. Creating an environment that is consistent and dependable is conducive to families in recovery. Consistent means avoiding ultimatums and threats based on feelings and following through on boundaries even when you don’t want to. For instance, if you have an agreement that a loved one will move out if s/he relapses, stick to this and effect the move. An important part of families in recovery is reorganization of the family structure shifting power to parents, adult-adult roles, children to children roles, etc. Eliminating problem coalitions and triangles is another goal for families in recovery. All family members need to develop a sense of accountability, improved communication and increased adaptability. The family increases problem-solving skills and positive creativity in dealing with stress or issues.
Addressing addiction in the context of all family members is essential. Helping family members identify their individual needs refocuses families on recovery rather than on the addiction itself.
While your loved one is in treatment, it is a good time to focus on your own recovery. All family members need to step out of their own family system for support since the family structure has become so unhealthy during the drinking process. Individual recovery has a profound effect on the entire family system providing the framework for healthy growth and change. However, early recovery for families can typically feel frightening, confusing, and chaotic as homeostasis is threatened and moving away from what was normal can result in anxiety and uncertainty. It is important to recognize that the more you cope with the reality, the less terrifying it becomes. Some of the anxiety is derived from the need to control and in family recovery, as you deny this impulse; you must also learn to cope with overwhelming feelings by specific healthy behaviors such as journaling or exercise. The individual family members’ shift focus off the family and onto external systems of support such as therapy and/or self-help groups. Family members begin working through their denial and increase awareness in their loss of control over others. Family recovery involves building trust to openly discuss the alcoholism and recovery in a useful way. Healthy families have freedom of expression even if their feelings may lead to reactions of another. Not “walking on eggshells” is important in recovery. Learning how to use “I” statements such as “I am concerned and worried about you when you stay out all night” is appropriate when this is the honest feeling and not an attempt to get the loved one worked up. If the loved one begins an argument, you have the right to not react to everything said and to walk away. Al- Anon teaches family members to let go of expectations, controlling, and passing judgment.
Stepping outside the family system for support is an essential ingredient for families in recovery. Moving towards stability is a factor in early recovery as the family is moving towards a safe environment mixed with hope, predictability, and consistency. Detachment from the old family system, dominated by crisis or trauma, continues as individual recoveries are underway. Self-examination and self-development are key areas of concentration. Family focus is on education, recovery language, and basic family responsibilities, especially healthy parenting. The family system supports recovery principles including individual recovery. The foundation for a new system is being prepared and change is gradual, not fast paced. This change does not pose a threat since the system has become flexible and can adapt. The new system incorporates both individual and system needs without sacrificing either. Crisis is minimal and when it occurs, the family has developed coping skills to manage the crisis without falling apart. Intimacy and openness has evolved and change is constant.
Help and support are available. It is important to know that recovery is available – both for the addicted individual and for the family. With time, patience, and hard work, families can and do become healthier!
- Schoenborn, CA (September 1991). “Exposure to Alcoholism in the Family: United States, 1988″. Advance Data 30 (205): 1–13. ISSN 0147-3956. PMID 10114780
- Brown S, Lewis V, Liotta, A. The Family Recovery Guide: A map for healthy growth. Oakland, CA: Publishers Group West., 2000.
- Conyers, B. Addict in the Family: Stories of loss, hope, and recovery. 2003 by Hazelden Foundation
- Copello A, Velleman R, Templeton, L. Family interventions in the treatment of alcohol and drug problems. Drug and alcohol review, July 2005, 24, 369-385