The disease of addiction brings confusion, resentment, and futility to families.
What can a spouse or parent do when a loved one becomes unable to resist the pleasure created by drugs, alcohol, or some other obsessive behavior like gambling, shopping, or an eating disorder?
Where the Problem Starts
The problem starts in the brain but ends up creating family dysfunction that requires interventions much more challenging than understanding neurochemistry.
The midbrain of an addict produces abnormally high levels of the pleasure chemical dopamine in response to specific drugs, liquors, or behaviors like eating, shopping, or gambling.
This jolt of dopamine is infinitely more pleasant than any other experience the addict can have, so the brain tells the addict that the substance or behavior is better for them than it is.
Before long, the addict begins to unconsciously relate the behavior and its dopamine-producing effect as essential to moment-to-moment survival. The midbrain does not think. It is the part of the brain humans share with animals. Its only function is to keep us alive.
If alcohol or gambling produces enough dopamine, the person comes to believe alcohol or gambling is more important than family, career, physical health, or possible legal problems.
This irrational placement of value offends, discourages, and frightens spouses and family members if they are not taught how to properly cope with the addict's pathology.
Choosing a Recovery Program
Since the American Medical Association declared addiction a disease, many healing programs have been developed. The most common denominators among them are listed here.
Without these four components, no recovery program can yield lasting results, and the goal of a sobriety program is a lifetime without the drugs, drinks, or obsessive behaviors that have caused damage in the first place.
- Complete abstinence from addictive behavior. Most addicts can never learn to drink or use drugs normally again. This applies to behavioral addictions like gambling, too.
- Psychoeducation about the neurological basis of the disease.
- Building a social network of other sober addicts.
- Exploration of spiritual energy for healing.
Getting Help for the Family
Spouses and families of addicts also need support. The Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and Ala-Teen programs teach coping skills for helping loved ones suffering from addiction. These programs teach spouses and family members how to support the addict's recovery without becoming codependent on how quickly they recover.
Many addicts relapse multiple times before they finally achieve stable recovery. This is not the time for families to give up their support, but the groups mentioned above also teach the importance of detaching from the addictive drama by setting firm boundaries.
Addiction becomes a family disease as spouses and family members become obsessive in their need to "cure" their addict. Just because there is an addict is the family does not mean the whole family has to become neurotic about it.
Forms of Treatment
There are two primary forms of treatment for addiction. Residential centers provide 24/7 housing and counseling. Patients are constantly monitored and educated. Residential treatment is a good choice of the addict in the family who has lost the ability to self-care, or if the family can no longer tolerate their behavior.
Outpatient treatment provides educational and support groups, but does not include housing. Outpatient treatment is not the best choice for severe addiction.
Full-time behavioral intervention is required in this case, but should always be followed up by Outpatient care and participation in sober support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
Hundreds of other obsessive behavior support groups now exist, too, such as Clutterers Anonymous, Pills Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, and Sex Addicts Anonymous.
If you love an addict, your first job is to take care of yourself. You cannot help someone who suffers if you are emotionally unstable yourself in reaction to the other person's addiction. Educate yourself about the disease. Join a group like Al-Anon.
Send your children to Ala-Teen. Point your addict toward the four recovery resources of abstinence, psychoeducation, sober social networking, and spiritual help.
Support them with residential, psychiatric, pastoral, or psychotherapy help and be consistent. Love your addict, but remember that love does not mean you have to become unhealthy yourself.