Substance abuse compromises the emotional, social, spiritual and material integrity of families. It often takes years of peeling back the layers of addiction for denial to wear off, and for full acceptance to set in. Sadly, it sometimes takes a fatal overdose or end-stage liver disease to bring the picture into full focus.
The durability of families in their capacity to manage stress — from economic hardships to day-to-day logistical and emotional challenges — depends on the capacity and willingness of each family member to provide and accept support. That crucial integrity gets tested frequently in modern American life. We live in a culture of immediate gratification that offers a product or pill for just about anything that ails us.
Our ability to manage the many stresses and pains of contemporary life with pills or narcotics has never been easier. And Americans are the most prolific consumers of legal substances and illegal narcotics in the history of the world. But that access often comes with the price of addiction. An addicted family member can quickly become a drain on the integrity of an entire family, and its ability to manage its limited emotional and economic resources.
When a family begins to accept and recognize this addiction as a breach of its integrity, members who seek the help of a professional addictions counselor. They are then able to learn the difference between futile hope for a spontaneous change and the deliberate, realistic ownership of the problems. This ownership and recognition sets the stage for recovery. Grandparents learn to stop giving rescue money to their beloved grandchildren. Parents learn to give appropriate types and measures of support to their sons and daughters that empower, rather than enable. Siblings and friends learn to give meaningful emotional support instead of well-intended rescue.
It’s important to understand that family integrity can only improve and lead to recovery when individual members prioritize their own wellness. This counterintuitive choice is much like the pre-flight instruction to place the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting a younger or more vulnerable traveler. When family members put their own oxygen masks on first, the entire family can then act together to best help their addicted loved one. This concept of “self-care first,” though initially difficult to grasp, equates to the best long-term care for the addict in your family. Whether or not your loved one accepts the “oxygen mask” you offer is up to them. But you will know that you are breathing clearly and able to make the best decisions for the overall health of your family.
David Petersen, LCSW, LAC, January 15, 2016