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The Family Experience of Addiction

What’s the last thing you think before you fall asleep? What’s the first thing you think in the morning?

“Is he okay?”

The young man in your life might be stealing; being dishonest; getting in trouble at work, school, or with the law; he might be taking risks with his life that result in hospitalization or worse.

As a family member, as someone who loves someone who’s struggling with a substance use disorder, you’ve likely been forced to adapt your behavior to a person who isn’t honest about where they are, who they’re with and what they’re doing.

Perhaps you've found yourself playing detective, using technology or social media to track him down. Parents often admit to tracking their loved one’s iPhone twenty or thirty times a day; to combing through his social media looking for all kinds of clues, hints, any indication of where he is and what he’s doing.

Families are stuck in an unending pattern of chaos, forced to respond to life-or-death scenarios in real-time. Hardest of all is that they develop a false sense of happiness in the moments of calm that occasionally punctuate the chaos. When families build an entire code of behaviors around someone they love not dying, not getting arrested, or coming home only an hour late instead of two days late as being cause for celebration, this illustrates a major degradation of where they’re finding happiness.

One of the goals of our work with families is to help them re-adjust their expectations around sanity and happiness; to refuse to tolerate old destructive behaviors and look for real joy and success.

Perspective is one of the biggest challenges families face. Because they have grown so accustomed to accepting pain and chaos as part of daily life, parents especially struggle to see what’s really going on. We help them take a closer look.

It’s real: you really did spend six full hours last week researching where your kid was through a variety of apps; you really spent three hours combing through social media to learn about his friends; you really spent twelve or fifteen hours talking about it with the few people who are still willing to hear you; and yes, you really spent at least three hours fighting about it all with someone you care about.

And on top of all that time you spent searching, fighting, and fearing the worst, you still had to be a parent to your other kids, still had to be a partner to your spouse, still had to show up at work and do your job, still had to grocery shop, still had to walk the dog, still had to show up for your friends.

How present are you for your own life? How much do you have leftover for yourself after exhausting all that time and energy on your son? How kind were you, how patient were you, how resilient were you in all the other areas of your life that deserve your attention too?

In the NA Basic Text there’s a passage about isolation I always share with families. It says “We did not choose to become addicts. We suffer from a disease that expresses itself in ways that are anti-social and that makes detection, diagnosis and treatment difficult. Our disease isolated us from people except when we were getting, using and finding ways and means to get more. Hostile, resentful self-centered and self-seeking, we cut ourselves off from the outside world Anything not completely familiar became alien and dangerous. Our world shrank and isolation became our life. We used in order to survive. It was the only way of life that we knew.”

That’s what isolation looks like for an addict or alcoholic, how might that differ from the isolation experienced by a family member?

When we talk about control and unmanageability, we have to talk about typical patterns of behavior in family members. In adapting to a seemingly endless cycle of chaos, they often create an environment that sustains the addict or alcoholic’s destructive behavior. Even in trying to be ‘nice’—trying to accept a young man’s behavior, give him a break, let him off the hook once in a while—there is an attempt to control in there. There is the unspoken hope that if you can give them what they want, they’ll give you what you want.

We help families see that old patterns don’t inspire new behaviors—that tolerating, accepting, and adapting your life to an addict or alcoholic doesn’t help them, rather it hurts you and the rest of your family.

The goal of treatment is the same for patients as it is for families: to find freedom from the chaos of addiction and build a life that is worth living.

We ask parents to imagine themselves before they had children, before they got married, before they started their career, before they went to college.

Who were you before addiction came into your life?

In that lifetime before now, when you thought about having kids, is this what you imagined?

What would you tell that person now? What would they tell you?

What would you change in your life now to get back to the ideals that you had then?

You’ll never be able to return to who you were before addiction, but for most people living in recovery that’s a good thing. Living in recovery means knowing what you are powerless over, what you cannot control, what makes your life unmanageable, and that there is something greater than you that you can reach out to for help.

Our goal by providing an intensive week-long family program, and weekly family support for the duration of a patient’s stay with us, is to help families in the same way we help patients: freedom from the chaos and destructive of active addiction, and a chance at a life worth living.

Contact us to learn more about how you can rebuild yourself and your family and give everyone a second chance at a happy, healthy life, call us at 772-245-8345 or email us at


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