Rosemary Keevil is a journalist with years of experience in the national media. Her area of expertise is addiction. She recently received her Master of Journalism from the University of British Columbia, has been clean and sober since 2002 and is currently working on the second draft of her memoir.
Pollyanna-ish—that’s the way families of an addict or alcoholic can be after their loved one does a stint in a rehab center. They tend to believe that life will return to normal right away. “That doesn’t just happen because you did 42 days in a treatment centre,” explains Lisa Shatsky, an addiction counselor at the Orchard Recovery Center.
Family members are now, “not so worried you’re going to die tonight. They may actually be pissed off at you. They’re going to have their own issues to work out.”
The whole family needs to readjust its mode of interacting when the addict gets clean. Everyone has taken on unhealthy behaviors to compensate for the addict, often suppressing their own emotions. “On an unconscious level, we make up for each other. The chemically dependent person comes back into the family system and everyone has to now do something different,” says Lisa.
The family is like a mobile hanging from the ceiling: if one of the parts moves, all of the other parts move automatically. This is a classic example of the family systems theory in which all systems strive to maintain stability. So when the addict is using, or the alcoholic is drinking, the family has settled into a dysfunctional equilibrium. Everyone plays a certain role. Throw sobriety into that picture and BAM!
“A lot of things arise in the first six months to a year,” explains Barb Metcalfe, Director of Family Programs at the Orchard. Family members need to change too. Barb recalls a male who was at the Orchard and his wife who had come to some family sessions. When they left, Barb didn’t hear from them for several months. Then she received a phone call from the wife who said, “ ‘He’s driving me crazy because he wants to do everything now.’ ” Barb saw that the wife had been over-functioning, being the boss of the household when her husband was in his alcoholism. “She probably found some reward in that. Now, that he’s wanting to participate and take things on her loss of control begins. She doesn’t know what to do with herself. She needs to readjust. Does she trust him to do that and, if not, why not?”
Another example of a family system being thrown into even more turmoil than when the alcoholic was drinking—is the story of a single mom who had been the Orchard for thirty days. After she went home she suddenly had rules, like curfews, for her two teen girls where there once were no rules. The girls rebelled and, even though mom had a more functional parental approach, a new type of chaos ensued. There often needs to be a shake-up of the old ways in order to make room for healthier relationships.
Family members also have to learn not to enable the addict anymore. Loved ones often give money to the addict or alcoholic who ends up buying drugs or liquor or paying for the mortgage, freeing up money for his or her habit. This is actually enabling. “It’s one thing to be there to support recovery but it’s a fine line between an adult crossing the line into their adult child’s life and facilitating in some strange way without addressing it. This is a form of denial,” explains Lisa.
The addict is guilty of denial too. They can be in denial of their illness or even if they’ve accepted they’re sick they may think, falsely, that their behavior isn’t hurting anybody but themselves.
Barb tells the story of an older 27-year-old brother who was shocked to learn his younger teen sisters were hurt by his behavior. “He didn’t realize they were looking up to him as a role model, and when they expressed themselves around what it was like for them, it blew him away.”
Most addiction treatment centers offer family therapy programs which vary in length from a day to a few days to a week long. These are for the loved ones of the addict or alcoholic in the centers.
The family programs usually include group therapy sessions and educational seminars on topics such as addiction is a family disease; underlying issues of addiction; and relapse prevention.
An integral part of any family program is the process groups with a therapist, clients, and their loved ones. There are normally two or more families (spouses, older children, parents) involved. The clients in the group are experiencing what it’s like to have families there and the families are witnessing what it’s like for other families in the same predicament. They can identify with each other and “see the multiple issues that can be present in addiction, while the clients are in the room,” explains Sharon Jackson, an Orchard addiction counselor.
“It diminishes the shame and the stigma of addiction. They realize they’re not alone. They understand together, with the strength of the group that, first of all, addiction is an illness, and that the journey is a difficult one.”
The family therapy experience is bound to be tense at times. The Pollyanna attitude may be extinguished but if the participants engage in the process they will leave with some sense of control where there once was chaos. They may not be able to control their sick loved ones but the family members can take back some control over their own lives. They will have realistic hope.
To read more by Rosemary, visit her website and blog.