Everyone knows that getting caught in a small, stuffy place with someone close to you who is coughing and sneezing can spell trouble – usually within 3 or 4 days. Catching the contagious form of disordered thought which naturally grows from addiction, however, can take months and even years to fully develop for loved ones and family. In addition, because it is a somewhat different strain of the same “virus”, it can be difficult to recognize at first.
It starts in small ways. The addict needs “just a little help” to deal with a crisis. Then, things seem to get better. But unexpectedly, perhaps for no apparent reason at all, the chemical use spikes and sends them into a tailspin. It’s unpredictable. But life has to move on, and needs have to be met, so loved ones and family members act to compensate. Because they never know when the next crisis will hit, they may take on more and more responsibility – until there is little left of their own lives and personalities. For loved ones and family members, friendships, hobbies, and other things that make life more enjoyable and meaningful start to drop off. If the addict has been a charming, high-achieving performer – as many are – loved ones can even feel that they can’t speak truth to those around them about what is happening. If they do, family status, income, a great job, and social standing can be affected.
And once truth becomes a casualty as well, the damage to relationships and even inner spiritual growth begins to erode the core.
Paradoxically, this can become a stable, and even rigid, family system. Loved ones feel that they have little or no power to change it – it’s all the fault of the addict, who never seems to get fully cured. The only comfort for the family sometimes is blaming the addict – “it’s their problem, not mine!” And yet, blaming brings no real relief either. Things remain the same, and loved ones begin to lose pieces of themselves almost without realizing it (just like the addict!). Members of the family system can all feel like the proverbial frog in the pot, who doesn’t realize he is cooking until he’s well done and ready to garnish on the plate!
However, research on addiction and families has shown a remarkable truth – when loved ones start to find a way to recover lost pieces of themselves – when they find a way to articulate and own their own truth recognizing what they have lost – the family system is challenged. The addict encounters new and unexpected boundaries – healthy boundaries – where before he or she simply didn’t need to worry as much about consequences. When those boundaries are consistently held, truth becomes a catalyst to challenge the addict’s disordered thought. Thinking crazy is suddenly not as easy as it once was.
This is why it’s so important for loved ones to reach out and get the help they need – even if they know they are “not the problem”. The truth is that until someone in the family is able to recognize the pattern, articulate it, and change their own behavior, nothing will change.
Of course, loved ones can’t always cause an addict to recover by finding help for themselves. If only it was that easy! But changing the family system itself is usually the first step to creating a healthy environment in which recovery can grow for everyone – and it works in a surprising number of cases.
What is there to lose? For loved ones, only more pieces of themselves, or facing an unfulfilling future. Collaborative Team Divorce works with other therapeutic communities who are experts in families, addiction, and real recovery. Spirit of Hope is one therapeutic community with great experience in helping loved ones of addicts to embrace their own truth and find new joy in life. The Retreat in Wayzata is a healthy, supportive community that works with addicts to help them and their families embrace a deeper sense of humanity and richer life in recovery. Don’t hesitate to reach out – for your own good, and for the good of your family!