When Your Loved One Has an Addiction: What Helps and What Doesn’t?

Counseling - In Tears

“Addiction is a family disease.”
“Stop being codependent with the addict in your life.”
“Let him hit bottom.”
“Detach with love, and just take care of yourself.”
“You can’t get an addict to go to rehab; focus on changing yourself.”

These messages are commonly received by family members of loved ones with addiction. Are they true? Do they help? While having a relative who struggles with a substance use disorder can cause a great deal of hardship for families, there’s no scientific evidence that “something is wrong” with such families. Yet treatment facilities typically view addiction as a “family disease” that requires relatives of the addicted person to go through their own recovery process, most often through Al-Anon or a similar 12-step self-help group like Nar-Anon (for families of drug-addicted people) or Families Anonymous.

The word “codependence” is used a lot, and some treatment facilities have programs just to treat that, even though the American Psychiatric Association rejected the term from its diagnostic manual because of lack of evidence supporting its validity. Codependence was originally coined to describe actions of family members who inadvertently made it easier for addicted people to continue using. But now the term is often used for far too many behaviors, mainly describing those who generally gain a sense of identity through unhealthy interactions with others.

The notions that the addicted person has to “hit bottom” (many people recover before hitting bottom – in fact, we want them to) and loved ones should detach, just taking care of themselves simply aren’t true, and in a number of cases have led to unfortunate consequences.

Following many years of life in and out of rehab, Terry was found frozen in a snow bank after McGovern and his wife followed the advice of a counselor to limit contact…-Anne FletcherA high-profile example of this was the death of the late senator George McGovern’s daughter, whose story was documented in his book, Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism. Following many years of life in and out of rehab, Terry was found frozen in a snow bank after McGovern and his wife followed the advice of a counselor to limit contact with her. He wrote movingly about how he regretted taking that advice.

Unfortunately, there isn’t research to guide us about the “right” thing to do when someone in your life struggles with addiction and, in turn, causes problems for the family. Certainly, family members have their limits and right to establish boundaries. However, that doesn’t mean they have to abandon the addicted person. When I asked one of the most well-versed experts in the field of addiction, the University of Washington’s Daniel Kivlahan, Ph.D., about this topic, he said, “There is good evidence that being abandoned by loved ones in fact hurts one’s chances of recovery. But all family members and loved ones have their limits, and I consider it important to respect them.”

A Sister Speaks on Tough Love
Side Note Picture Toward the end of writing Inside Rehab, I received an alarming e-mail informing me of thirty-seven-year-old Wyatt D.’s drug-related death. Shortly after, I spoke with his family members who shared mixed feelings about Wyatt’s struggles with addiction and his multiple treatment experiences, which cost as much as a million dollars.

But in the end, they all agreed when one of his sisters said, “Sometimes, I got mad at him, but we were lucky we were on good terms. The last thing he said to our father was, ‘Dad, I love you more than you’ll ever know.’ The tough love approach is not always the right way to go, and the judgment placed on those who don’t go that route bothers me. If we had done that, Wyatt would have been dead a long time ago.”

Research clearly shows that there are steps you can take to move an addicted person to action – before they “crash and burn.” The overall approach is called Community Reinforcement and Family Training or CRAFT and was developed by Robert Meyers, Ph.D., Research Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico’s Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addiction. CRAFT has consistently been shown in research studies to be far more effective at getting resistant people into treatment than strategies like those made famous on the TV show, Intervention, whereby family members confront the addicted person about his or her behavior in the presence of an “interventionist” and then try to get the person to enter treatment. And family members have reported a marked reduction in their own adverse physical symptoms, depression, anger, and anxiety after participating in CRAFT training.

Family members have reported a marked reduction in their own adverse physical symptoms, depression, anger, and anxiety after participating in CRAFT training.-Anne Fletcher

Continue Reading Part II: You Can Motivate Your Loved One to Get Help

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