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    Substance Use and the Recovering Family

    Posted on November 18, 2016 by

    Family members are directly affected by the increased problems that addiction causes. Drugs and alcohol are “intoxicants”, consumed to become intoxicated – high or drunk.  The behavior of the substance user causes the family to experience negative emotions, sometimes they become obsessed with the behavior, attitude, and situation caused by the use of substances. Over a period of time, family members begin to experience emotions that leave them “intoxicated” similar to the use of substances, known as “Intoxicant Emotions.” Intoxicating emotions include shame, guilt, resentment, self-pity, worry, and anger. These emotions “intoxicate” a person in that they change the way they feel when he or she indulges in the emotions. An “intoxicant emotion” (IE) (CompCare Publishers) such as shame often causes a person to hide, be secretive, feel depressed, or unable to sleep.

    The feeling is similar to the way an alcoholic or addict may feel when using or coming off his/her drug of choice. Intoxicant emotions may energize or slow one down limiting the ability to function at an optimum level. Sometimes these emotional states are as unpredictable as emotions that affect the alcoholic upon picking up a drink or drug.

    Family members may follow the same downward spiral as an alcoholic or addict. There are 4 stages of family illness before the family either “bottoms out” or enters recovery. The first stage is the Concern Stage. This is the stage where family members are acting out of, assisting the family member, with genuine concern. They are beginning to experience the effects of alcohol and drug abuse by a loved one. Family members at this stage typically are not aware of the situation they are facing.

    The second phase is the Defense Stage, after the “first blockout.” During the first “blockout” family members block out the reality and severity of the situation. Substance users often experience “blackouts”, a period of time when they have no memory of events, usually while seriously impaired or during a period of coming off heavy alcohol or drug use.  The effect of “blockouts” can be similar to a blackout caused by alcohol or drug use.

    During this stage, families are preoccupied with the Substance user’s behavior. They protect the behavior by lying to other family members, employers, or to others about the behavior. While reluctantly tolerating the user’s behavior, they feel increasingly responsible for the family problems. The result is the “blockouts” increase. Family members can’t remember all the negative behavior of the user and tend to minimize the consequences.

    After repeated “blockouts” comes the Adaptation Phase. During this phase, family members try to change their own behavior to adapt to the chemically dependent person’s behavior. This is a critical phase that may cause family members to either become obsessed with the chemically dependent person. They face increasingly serious problems and could begin to drink or use drugs, too.

    Family members may attempt to become “the perfect person” hoping that will make the addict/alcoholic happy and change his/her ways. It is at this time that family members may begin to feel they are “losing their minds.” They become absent minded, feel like failures, and need medical or mental health care. They often give so much to others that they have nothing left to take care of themselves.

    Next comes the Exhaustion Phase, when family members defend their use of intoxicant emotions, just like the substance user defends his use of drugs or alcohol. They lose their self-worth and experience severe anxiety or depression. All excuses fail and fear rules their lives. They have reached their “bottom.”

    Just as when substance users reach their bottom, family members must choose to admit they, too, have a problem and recover, face insanity or death. They  cannot go on the way things are. When family members reach this point, seeking and accepting assistance to deal with the situation is necessary.  Seek a family counselor at a substance abuse treatment center. Find a therapist who specialized in substance abuse and family counseling. Locate Al-Anon and Nar-Anon programs in your area. There are resources to help you through the situation. When the people closest to the substance abuser make significant changes, things change significantly. Otherwise, the condition typically continues to spiral out of control.

    The longer alcohol and drug users abuse drugs or alcohol, the worse problems become. Until the substance user commits to change through recovery and/or therapy, the downward spiral continues.  “Committed” to recovery requires working a program or counseling with commitment over an extended period of time. Attend meetings, counseling, or groups does not necessarily confirm one is committed to recovery. Deeper involvement is required. How long does it take? That varies among individuals. It usually takes several weeks to just become stable, several months to begin dealing with the issues that contribute to substance use. It takes a few years of committed recovery to become the best one can be. Sometimes, it is the family that has to take the first step to recovery. A few days, or even a few weeks, of treatment is not sufficient to change the behavior of a person with a substance abuse disorder, nor is it sufficient to heal the family. All this can be accomplished, though, with commitment and efforts over time.

    (Portions of this article are adapted from the poster “Affected Family Syndrome” by CompCare Publishers, 1990)

    Henry Tarkington

    “At first like most people I wasn’t really crazy about going to group. As time went on all of that began to change. I started seeing the difference that the treatment was making in my life. I also saw that my family was beginning to be a lot happier than I’ve seen in a while. I realized that being sober has been the best thing that has happened to me; physically, mentally, and emotionally. I thank God and First Step for my second chance that they made possible for me to see, also the positive that came out of a bad situation. Thank you.”   Anonymous

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