When it comes to addiction and substance abuse, we often only think of the individual who is addicted. But studies show that people with close relatives with substance abuse disorders and addiction suffer high amounts of stress that can affect their emotional and physical health.
So, in addition to the millions of people who struggle with substance abuse and addiction, there are millions more family members and friends who are affected by and invested in their recovery process.
Recent studies have also shown the immense financial and social burden placed on the immediate family members of a person struggling with addiction. An increase in public resources and policy reform are essential for these larger issues to be addressed.
But in the meantime, since families play a key role in the recovery processes, the spouses, siblings, parents, children, and friends, need practical tools for handling the day-to-day stressors of living with a person suffering from patterns of substance abuse.
What to Do
#1 Learning and Education
One of the most important tools for families and friends supporting someone in recovery is education. By learning about addiction and the recovery process, family members tend to blame each other less and seek solutions more. Knowledge is power—and in the case of addiction, it can empower everyone involved.
Contrary to some public perceptions of addiction and substance abuse, weakness or stubbornness are not always the cause of a person’s disorder. There are many more pieces of the puzzle to consider. For family members, it helps to understand that addiction is not a simple choice and it helps loved ones begin to release the anger and sometimes hatred toward the person struggling.
#2 Adjusting and Managing Expectations
Expectations drive our understandings of what it means to succeed and to fail. It is important, then, to adjust our expectations of what the recovery process looks like. Many behaviors and patterns associated with addiction and substance abuse may take a long time to change—some even years.
Because of this, family members and close relatives may feel frustrated with the process, or even feel like they’ve failed. Moreover, in the case of a relapse, loved ones can feel crushed and discouraged by the appearance of lack of progress.
But it is essential to remember that relapse or a slower recovery process does not mean failure for anyone involved. Many things can be done to avoid relapse, but it is often an aspect of recovery from addiction—although not an easy one. The healing process and rehabilitation of a person is a lifelong journey with ups, down, and everything in between.
Learning to identify, address, and control your expectations are important parts of being in relationships that take both time and effort to heal.
#3 Family Therapy
It can be difficult to talk about addiction and substance abuse, especially for family members and loved ones. Speaking freely about hurtful and harmful behavior is not easy, so many people remain quiet and distant to avoid confrontation or conflict. Moreover, sometimes family members place blame on themselves—whether it be for their own suffering or the person struggling with addiction.
One way to address these communication issues is family therapy. The goal of family therapy programs is to build trust and reduce shame by making space for everyone to speak honestly and be heard. Professional family therapists who specialize in addiction and substance abuse can help family members to understand one another and resolve conflicts with honesty and trust-building.
With the help of family therapy, the difficult emotions that often accompany addiction—anger, shame, victimization, and resentment—can be addressed and healed by processes that open communication in the family and encourage the formation of healthy boundaries.
#4 Exercise and Healthy Lifestyle
Exercise routines and healthy lifestyle choices can be a huge factor in improving family dynamics while in the process of recovery. Studies have shown that physical activity has significant benefits including reducing stress and depression, as well as reducing the risk of relapse while in substance abuse recovery. Muscular activity causes the brain to produce the same chemicals, such as dopamine and oxytocin, that are produced in the brain during substance abuse.
As a family, high-energy exercise and strength-training sessions can help “blow off steam” in a safe space that doesn’t hurt others or cause unnecessary conflict. Exercise-oriented games can also offer opportunities for fun, team-collaboration activities. The bonds and trust created between laughter, sweat, and problem-solving cannot be underrated.
#5 Healthy Sleep Patterns
A part of a family’s healthy lifestyle includes sleep patterns. And since many of the most dangerous addictive behaviors occur at night, it is key to address the importance of a household’s sleep schedule.
Family members who are struggling with substance abuse and addiction might find the nighttime hours the most difficult—it provides the opportunity to meet dealers, come home late from parties, or cause other issues for family members who are waiting up for them. Regular times of sleeping and waking can help prepare the brain for deep sleep, therefore making the schedule regular and reducing stress overall.
#6 Community Resources
Community also plays a significant role in how families recover together. According to the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, community is one of the key components to long-term recovery. Seminars, educational events, book events, and classes can all contribute to a family’s sense of connection and confidence in the recovery process.
There are a number of helpful online resources that exist to educate families on substance abuse and addiction, as well as most bookstores. Having access to knowledge like this in a community-oriented environment may help make a family feel more hopeful and optimistic about their loved one’s journey of healing.
All in all, families should never feel alone on the journey—just as the one struggling with addiction or substance abuse needs support, so do you.