Substance Use in Our Families

Issues: ,

Rachel Notartomaso, MSW

Are you, your family, or a family you know dealing with anger, fear, frustration, and powerlessness brought on by the substance use of a loved one? Have you found yourself and your family members frantically screaming at one another? Are you constantly asking yourself what you and your family are doing wrong?

Many Americans in every neighborhood, in every town are confronted with these questions daily. In fact, USA Today conducted a survey of 902 households in the United States; the results of that survey concluded that 20% of American households had a direct family member addicted to drugs or alcohol.

When the substance use of your loved one has caused multiple family members in the same household to take different sides, frequent family explosions result over the issue. These situations invoke our deepest issues and fears about problem solving and its consequences. Our fears around “what are we going to do?” are misguided. We find ourselves caught up in the problem, so overwhelmed we don’t actively pursue ideas and compromise toward the solution.

Because of this we rarely find ourselves devising a plan or approach. Instead more people find themselves frantically trying to get everyone else to subscribe to their own approach. One member may feel they should have no contact at all. Another wants to provide housing and money at every opportunity. Yet another wants to charge into the problem head on, confronting any and all denial of the issue.

It’s always been amazing to me that we plan vacations, which bills to pay, our grocery lists, and even what to wear. But, we have yet to plan well for major family problems; it becomes every person for them self. Addiction presents our families with a complicated set of problems for each member.

If your family is searching for a new way, or any way at all to deal with this situation, here are a few things to try:

FirstGet educated. Learn about addiction and its process. There is no better way to do this than to attend a number of “open” AA (Alcoholics Anonymous 1-212-870-3400), or NA (Narcotics Anonymous 1-818-773-9999) meetings. Talk with individuals that have been in the shoes of your loved one. Find ways in which your loved one is affected by their addiction which you have never considered, or thought possible. Textbooks, articles and the internet can only teach so much. These teachings are helpful but the real life up-close and personal discussions provide a useful give and take. The perspectives from those who have caused much of their own families suffering are carrying an incredible wealth of knowledge for all of us.

Second Try Al-Anon. A little known fact about this group is that it openly welcomes and encourages family members or friends to attend to learn about the affects of substance use and how to deal with it. If the program itself does not fit for you the only cost has been your time; however you had the opportunity to connect with people experiencing the same overwhelming issues you are.

Third- Make a plan. After getting educated you may find that alcohol and drug users can be predictably unpredictable. One key component of this plan is to find a way for as many family members as possible to be on the same team. How do you create this team? First make a time each week to sit down and talk. Maybe over a weekly family dinner. If not weekly, then at least as often as possible. If you know this issue will frequently resort to yelling, set a time limit on the conversation, and make it a point to try again later. Encourage everyone to pursue a constructive conclusion.

Support each other. Discuss the unique, individual difficulties this family issue raises in each of you. Validate each family member’s perspective; how they experience the issue is very real for them. Be prepared to encourage each member to address how they contributed to or could be accountable for maintaining the problems progress. Learn about the roles and behaviors that take shape in your family which support the problem. Are you quiet?  Do you see it, but ignore it? Do you let your guilt determine your actions? Are your decisions based on embarrassment or fear?

Communicate. These situations all have a common thread; this lack of communication allows the addicted relative or friend to move freely among you, determining who is willing and able to help them with money, or favors. When you don’t allow your loved one to experience the natural consequences of their addition; that addiction will thrive. Because of your own logical fear of those real consequences- physical, emotional, or financial harm- your assistance enables the addiction to continue, and grow. It is critical to set clear boundaries, and maintain them. This is where I lose most parents/family members where they usually say “I can’t let my child/family become homeless.” This is invariably the most difficult hurdle to overcome.

Do what is right for YOUR family. Working in this field for some time now, I’ve seen many different approaches to treating this problem; most don’t discuss the middle ground where a large amount of families lie. What do we do when we’ve encountered the problem, but we’re not at the end of time, money, and patience? Invariably, what works for one may not work for another. I encourage the use of imagination; create an individual approach in your household; no one knows your family member, your values, and your family history better than you.

Commit to a solution. Creating a household approach may not come without its disagreements. If you encounter a difference among decision makers in the household- one wants nothing to do with the addicted; the other wants to empty the family savings account- try to find a middle ground. A possible solution to provide aid without funding the addiction would be purchasing gift cards to the local supermarket, and fast food restaurants. Pay your family members rent directly. Get connections to community supports for them. Do anything to avoid giving cash while sticking together and setting boundaries as a family. Today so many companies allow you to pre-pay debit or gift cards, cell phones, and gas cards. Use your ingenuity, and take some time to purchase these cards in lieu of cash. Set clear limits.

Compromise. The trick to staying on the same team as a family is committing to become a part of the solution. Continue to make exhausting efforts to communicate differing opinions while working hard toward a compromise. If that means certain difficult issues need to be tabled until the following week to let everyone think, so be it. Realize you are all working toward the same goal.

Know your limits. Most importantly know where your bottom line is individually, and also as a group. It is important to express where that line is with your substance using family member. In doing this it is also essential to express care, love and concern. Let them know things would be different if the drink or drug were not in your lives. Be calm and assertive. Remember, if you find yourself screaming frantically, the message is lost, and the negativity is counterproductive.

Stay calm and don’t take the bait. Okay, at this point, I would be doing you an injustice if I wasn’t honest with you: You should be expecting a fight. Any “line in the sand,” rule or boundary we set down interfering or disrupting with your loved one’s pattern of, or pursuit of their addiction will make them angry.

This is usually the time when many of us engage in that fight; to defend ourselves from their targeted guilt trip that hits all too close to home. It plays on our fears that their addiction is somehow partly our cross to bear. Don’t subscribe to this line of thought. Maintain your ground. Keep your boundaries and limitations. If you do feel somehow that you were responsible to any degree; it doesn’t matter right now, and that can be handled once the drug or drink is drastically reduced or eliminated.

Be consistent. These are defining moments we as a family and community face daily. When the addiction comes, our actions can help determine whether it wins or loses. When we collectively refuse to remain quiet; when we represent the family as a calm assertive unit, and stick to our limits and boundaries- the addiction loses.

If you and your family continue to find this, or any issue difficult to manage, consider counseling on an individual or family basis. Enhancing communication, clarity and understanding through professional counseling can aid in working toward solutions with this problem and others.

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