Help for Family Members of People with Addiction

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By Kelly Madigan

For the last few days, I have been remotely keeping vigil with a family as their son is being cared for in an intensive care unit in Minnesota. Watching from afar, my heart goes out to them over and over again each day. The details are not clear to me, but what has been shared is that he came home after a night of excessive drinking and was later found unresponsive. His mom, a medical professional, did CPR until the paramedics arrived. I could have been that kid, and those parents might have been mine, sitting at the bedside, talking to neurologists, making tough choices.

Watching alcohol or other drugs get its grip on a loved one is a lesson in helplessness. The nature of addiction is that the person experiencing it cannot see it clearly. Denial, euphoric recall, and plain old defensiveness obscures the truth. They refuse help, insist they are fine, blame others for the problems piling up in their lives—while their loved ones, typically more clear-eyed, fret, plead, intervene, and stand by powerlessly, fearing the worst.

For those families, I have three messages. One, sobriety is possible. My own long-term recovery has introduced me to countless others who have found their way to a solution, many with decades of sustained abstinence from chemicals. Our lives, our productivity, our contribution to our culture, all are made possible by the fact we found recovery. We count ourselves fortunate and stand up as an example to say there is hope.

Secondly, one of the best things you can do is to find ways to take care of yourselves. Yes, take care of you, not them. Alcoholism and other chemical addictions impact the family, change healthy dynamics, and undermine family members’ movement toward their own goals. Families feel guilty if they enjoy their own lives while the loved one is suffering or worry they should somehow do something to manage what is essentially an unmanageable situation. They can easily lose their own sense of meaning, direction, and life purpose.

Ways to get on track again include working with a therapist knowledgeable about addiction and the family, or finding a local Al-Anon support group. These free, anonymous groups meet regularly in virtually every city. Unless you live in an extremely remote area, a group meets near you. The people attending have been facing family issues remarkably similar to yours and are finding their way through, little by little, learning from each other. It is hard to explain how or why listening to others talk heals things, but in part it may be the freedom of sharing without any associated stigma. No one in that room is judging because they are all in the same boat. Not wanting to talk in a public setting? Try attending and just listening, which is perfectly acceptable in those groups. (They will pass a basket for donations, so drop a dollar in if you wish.) Find out more about Al-Anon at www.al-anon.alateen.org/.

Third, there are compassionate approaches to intervention that do not involve television cameras or shaming. Gently telling someone how you feel, what you notice, and how it impacts you can make a difference. It doesn’t normally have immediate results, but the words seem to be remembered and may contribute to an eventual decision to seek help. One resource for learning more about respectful intervention is a series of videos, available to view for free, on this website: www.bryanhealth.com/independencecentervideos.

Families can heal, regardless of the condition of the addicted person. It is OK to focus on yourself. When you are ready to do so, resources are out there to support you.

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