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Chris Sharpe is also an associate of Twin Rivers Rehab in South Africa

Twin Rivers in South Africa


Family Members and Addiction Recovery by Chris Sharpe

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Family Members and Addiction RecoveryThe Family Member – Avoiding the Pain

It occurred to me that addicts recovering in treatment centres such as Twin Rivers, receive nothing but the best, around the clock care and attention. The family member, on the other hand can be left feeling resentful having had to deal with the addicts behaviour, sometimes for years and now expected to pay for rehab and continue to deal with the addicts debts, for example!

Parents, children and spouses will have spent a great deal of energy both during and after active addiction, trying to deny their feelings of powerlessness. They will have covered debts, lied for the addict and spent fruitless hours attempting to counsel their loved one, while pretending to outsiders that everything was normal. After the recovering addicts successful discharge, the family member will learn that this sort of defensive thinking is not helpful but will also find it difficult to stop. It will have become obsessive.

Obsessive thinking and controlling behaviour serve only to block out anxiety, which may otherwise feel overwhelming. Coping with unhealthy addictive behaviour in a loved one, causes fear to arise, which may have traumatic origins such as abandonment, or being alone and unsupported. In such circumstances, obsession can be seen as a very normal and natural reaction but paradoxically, the obsessive person appears to stay in the pain to avoid pain. In other words, it’s hard to let go. To survive, controllers will do whatever “works” even if it means blocking off their own feelings and hanging on to old habits, relationships and defences long after they stop being healthy.

Freud commented, “Much is won if we succeed in transforming hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” It can be very hard to face the reality of useless obsessive behaviour and the lack control over someone else, but doing so releases us from hysterical misery!” The anxiety and fear are the misery and what to do about it is the problem that the family member faces. The addict needs help, but so does the family member.

To admit powerlessness is to surrender to a new way of looking at our lives. Many people wrongly equate surrender with defeat and humiliation. Yet those who have made the choice to relinquish control of another person have found that surrender was in fact liberating. After all, it is impossible to stand guard over another without losing your own freedom. Therefore a decision is needed, to either live through pain until it is finished, or stay in the pain for a lifetime. This proposal may sound difficult, and it is. But it can be workable if done slowly, in small steps, at a steady pace and with help.

Change itself may bring anxiety, and that is normal. But be assured that the fear will diminish with the onset of new life patterns. It’s important to try being gentle and non-blaming. It has to be understood that this is a new and sometimes alien process that will work if attempted in small steps, a day at a time.

As these outward and inward changes are made, surrendering to the lack of power over someone else becomes more comfortable even if that person, although greatly loved, continues to display unhealthy and addictive behaviour. In spite of good intentions and new insight, the family member may still find themselves devoting time each day to old ways of thinking, or more futile attempts to control the uncontrollable. If so, then they will need to pay attention to the pain it gives, because that is the clear message that it is they who need more help. Many have found a spiritual counsellor is a helpful guide. Health professionals at treatment centres who understand addiction will also help and support family members. Al-anon or Families anonymous can also be experienced allies who are always willing to help the family member on their journey into peaceful recovery.

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