Monday, April 27, 2009

Families on the Frontlines

I'm back...I hope everyone is working toward healing themselves. It is important for us all.

Every major professional organization in the world, such as the World Health Organization, American Medical Association, etc. agree that addiction is a disease process and a major public health problem. They also agree that when someone in a family is affected by this condition everybody in the family unit is negatively impacted. Family members generally begin to develop ways of coping with the problem of addiction that are unhealthy. They may reduce their level of communication with each other, avoid showing emotions and keeping the situation secret from friends, relatives or co-workers and they may start taking on the responsibilities that the addicted person should be fulfilling.

Family members are on the front lines in the "war on drugs," but they are not trained for the task and are usually operating as isolated units that generally do not communicate comfortably with each other or with the larger community in which they live. They are the invisible casualties that are piling up on the battlefield of this war and they are suffering on a daily basis in isolation and struggling with the pain and fear they are experiencing as a result of their loved one's addiction. As family members struggle to figure out how to help their loved one, without help for themselves they gradually begin to take on the pain and anxiety that the addict should be feeling. Families need help but aren't getting it.

When people are struggling with drug abuse in their family they grasp for answers. They are anxious to seek information about how to make it stop; they want to know how to get their loved one to stop using drugs and get into treatment. Family members become stressed out and they don't process information well. Many times what they do hear is that the user can get help only when they want it, and that translates into hopelessness and they feel even more powerless. What is going on, everything is focused on the addict. Paradox: More focus on the addict the worse the family feels.

What do family members need to learn?

Family member need to learn if what they actually believe about addiction is true. They need to develop enough confidence in themselves that they are willing to act based on what is true about addiction. Family members beliefs about addiction will continue to shape what they think, feel and do in relationship to the addict, other family members and themselves. It is important to get accurate information.

Family members need to learn about issues of control and stress management and how stress and fear can destroy family relationships. Control issues are at the core of addiction and it is the loss of control that frightens family members the most. Family members can learn what they have control over and what they don't have control over. Family members don't have control over the addicted person's behavior but they can exercise control over the type of behavior that occurs in their home if they are willing to. Armed with the knowledge that there are things that they can control, if they are willing to do that, they can begin moving a direction that is healthier for the family and may increase the possibility the addicted person will seek help. The skill of managing stress in a healthy manner is extremely important to learn. Stress, fear and anxiety play a central role in the struggle with addiction in the family. This is absolutely normal and at the same time must be acknowledged and managed. When family members learn to manage their fear and anxiety they will be better able to take back control over their own lives and respond to the addicted as well as other family members in a healthy way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Bob...
In reading your post I am concerned with the analogy being used: "the war on drugs" that put families on the frontlines and that family members are "casualites of war" piling up in the battlefield.
I suppose this concerns me because the nature of the analogy is Ronald Regan era, stigmatizing, and is antagonistic to both addict and their families. It creates an us against them (him or her).
I realize that you have been doing the family "class" for a long time and realize that your story is about "your" family and perhaps you feel as though it was a "war zone" because all of the "fighting" that goes on when there is dysfunction associated with addiction in the family(or any kind of dysfunction I might add).
The concern I have with the analogy is that the the enemy becomes the addicts, the "savior" of the family system becomes the paternal and maternal figures, and "battlefield" is thus the household (home). How can this possibly "heal" families? It might "heal" the independent parts of the system separately but will cause more harm to the system as a whole because the family member with the addiction issue will be further ostracized from the rest of the family system. Your response might be that well the "war" is on drugs and addiction not the people...and I say is that really what the latent message is?
I suggest that the latent message is rather that those who live by the philosophy of the drug world and addiction are the people who carry out the acts of war and are therefore the enemy.
Here's a parallel: 9-11 the Taliban (people with addiction issues) lives by the philosophy that acts of terrorism (addiction) have carried out acts congruent (using and breaking the law) to that philosophy. Who do we see as the "enemy"? terrorism?
I appreciate all that you have done in your tenure as a social worker; but I also emplore you to please stop the perpetuation of the "war" myth as it relates to the real people dealing with addiction.
If we want to help people with addiction problems and families "heal" then, I suggest that we use language that promotes healing. Perhaps we want to help them to build their relationships as a family unit rather that make one family member the "enemy". I think we need to stop using stigmatizing lanruage that pathologize people (addicts). I believe that change happens when we begin to see things as changing. Someone told me once "when I change how I see things, what I see changes". I believe this is so very true. If we see people with addiction issues as the harbinger of war then we will work to irradicate the harbinger through use of force, and punitive measures. Perhaps if we see people with addiction issues as people and the ones we love, who need help that we are not able to provide (as family members) then, that is about a collaboration between family, community, and person with addiction. That is the narritive we want to perpetuate; one that strengthens and brings families together.