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My Spouse, Sister, Father Is a Druggie: What’s My Role?

The family members of substance abusers need help in figuring out the role of the family in addiction treatment. The people who surround the addict generally know what’s going on, but they don’t know what to do. They walk a fine line between anger at their loved one’s actions and also curtailing their own behaviors that enable the addict. There’s a whole lot of learning going on!

One of the first things that you must learn as a family member is to let consequences happen to the addict. You’ve probably spent a lot of time and energy saving him from himself: Calling his job to report him off as sick when he’s really hung over, finding ways to pay bills when he has spent the family’s money, maybe even bailing him out of jail.

Often, an important person in the addict’s life will persistently try to call the counselor because he has such important information to share. The person often gets frustrated because the counselor doesn’t call back right away and he thinks the counselor isn’t doing his job. The reality is that the addict is the primary patient, and the counselor has to dig as much information out of the patient as possible before he turns his focus outward to the family. Keep in mind that the family plays a very important part in the patient’s recovery, but it takes time for the counselor to get to them.

Family members also may become jealous as the patient moves forward in treatment. The patient will talk about going to 12-step meetings and finding a sponsor. It may be hurtful to think that a sponsor can take the place of a family member in the patient’s heart. Nothing is further from the truth! People in a family are united by strong emotional ties and past experiences, and usually by blood. People in a 12-step group are united by common goals. You can see that your relationship will hold much more importance for the patient, but you also have to recognize that his new relationship with his sponsor lets him keep his goal in sight.

Once the counselor contacts you for your input in your loved one’s treatment, there will be two aspects: There will be family therapy, and there will be family-involved therapy. Family therapy addresses issues within the family and might include discussion of past traumatic events that have shaped the patient and indeed the other family members.

Family-involved therapy, on the other hand, advances each family member’s knowledge about the behavioral, medical, and psychological effects of the person’s drug of choice.  Each person will learn how his or her behaviors may have enabled the patient to go about his habits of abuse.

As the counselor meets with his patient and the family members, existing emotional issues may be worked out. Negative behavioral patterns can be adjusted. Boundaries for acceptable behaviors—on both sides—can be hammered out. It’s also a time for healing and relearning trust. Both sides have been hurt, and neither one trusts the other, initially. It takes about six months for trust to redevelop between a person in recovery and his family.

The role of the family in addiction treatment is never cut-and-dried. Families are different, and their mechanisms for interacting are dynamic. One of your first jobs is to be supportive of your loved one as he makes the decision to go into treatment. Help him make that first call. 

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