When holding interventions for sick family members, we often explain that Substance Use Disorder is a “family illness.” Most of the families we help subconsciously know this, but don’t yet understand how they too have been drafted into the illness of addiction.
By the time a family has a conversation about rehab with us, they’ve likely spent many months or years trying to manage their loved one’s addiction. A person of concern may have asked his partner to ‘cover for him’ when his boss raises questions about why he isn’t coming to work. Another person of concern may have borrowed money from her parents to pay her rent while spending her own paycheck on drugs. As families compensate for the consequences of the addiction, they may be drawn into making up lies, covering relationship transgressions, or providing their loved one with financial support.
While many desperate families readily accept this “family illness” model of their loved one’s addiction in order to rally behind their recovery, conversations about stepping back and withholding certain kinds of support can be much more difficult. Stepping back or detaching (as Al-Anon puts it) is sometimes the only means through which to sustain families emotionally damaged by the illness of addiction. The Al-Anon literature on detachment reads, “Separating ourselves from the adverse effects of another person’s alcoholism can be a means of detaching: this does not necessarily require physical separation. Detachment can help us look at our situations realistically and objectively.”
Most families managing an illness are also partly contending with two different versions of reality. First, there is the reality of the person suffering most directly with Substance Use Disorder; because denial is a hallmark of any addiction, this person likely won’t recognize the depths of their own illness. The person suffering presents a “third person”, they sweep their addiction under the rug, and present a false persona through lies. Family, coworkers know this third person. Then there is the more objective reality of the members and friends surrounding them; in this reality, friends and family must learn to contend with the consequences of their loved one’s illness, one crisis at a time.
This objective reality is, however, subjective. While family members may recognize the consequences more readily than their sick loved ones, they likely still worry for their health and safety, feel angry at their behavior, and grieve over the absence of the person they were without the influence of drugs or alcohol. This is where detachment comes in. Detachment “is neither kind nor unkind,” the Al-Anon literature tells us, “It does not imply judgement or condemnation of the person or situation from which we are detaching.” It is rather a survival mechanism and buffer from the emotional pain that accompanies the outcomes of addiction.
Practicing detachment can be tricky of course, and this is why Al-Anon advises families to “detach with love.” In Al-Anon meetings, those studying detachment practice:
1. Not to suffer because of the actions or reactions of other people
2. Not to allow [them]selves to be used or abused by others in the interest of another’s recovery
3. Not to do for others what they could do for themselves
4. Not to manipulate situations so others will eat, go to bed, get up, pay bills, not drink
5. Not to cover up for anyone’s mistakes or misdeeds
6. Not to create a crisis
7. Not to prevent a crisis if it is in the natural course of events
In practice, detachment includes emotionally and financially insulating the family from the addiction. Families should support behaviors that point their loved ones towards recovery and evaluate and stop behaviors and supports that co-sign their addictions. While most families feel protectively attached to their loved ones, this protectiveness often shields those suffering with addiction from the consequences of their use. As long as their families continue to soften their loved one’s landing, they are extending the time for their loved one to hit bottom.
In some circumstances, families financially soften their loved one’s landing. We have to take a critical look of the flow of money around the addiction. Are family members paying for the loved one’s car, car insurance, and school, rent, or cell phone? If their loved one is using money from their job to buy drugs while their family pays for all their other expenses, their family is supporting the addiction and not supporting recovery. Families may financially detach from their loved ones by withholding money for their cellphone plan or school. For many parents, this is far easier said than done, since detachment in this case may limit their ability to contact their child or lead their child to drop out of college. It may also mean that the sick family member is one step closer to treatment as the consequences of the addiction close in on them.
In other circumstances, families emotionally soften their loved one’s landing. Active addiction causes emotional pain and worry, so we ask these families to consider how their happiness is contingent on their sick loved one’s behavior. While we assure them that it is okay to love someone with an addiction, we encourage them to “step away” from the ups and downs within the cycles of addiction. Once families no longer find themselves locked in a perpetual crisis dictated by the loved one’s latest drug or alcohol binges, they may be able to heal the emotional wounds they may have sustained in trying to support their sick loved one.
In a comprehensive intervention, we begin to identify patterns of communication within the family that promote addiction. Active addiction always tries to “peel off” loved ones and keep them separated. Once separated, some family members know part of the story, and others, know a different story. Often family members are sucked into telling lies or “covering up” for the addiction. The disease of addiction spreads to others as they don’t know the whole truth, and their moral boundaries get pushed and crossed.
When hosting an intervention, we believe that treating the illness as a family begins with empathy. We treat everyone suffering from Substance Use Disorder with concern, compassion, and accountability, from the person of concern to their parents, grandparents, siblings, and children. While many families struggle to understand the wisdom of detachment, in an intervention, we take a two-pronged approach, helping the family and helping their sick loved one. Family recovery can begin immediately and is always assured.
About Suntra and Adam Banks
Adam Banks is a certified interventionist and recovery coach at Suntra Modern Recovery. He received an MBA from the University of Chicago and built a company, which United Health Care acquired. He learned his rigor and attention to detail from his career as an airline pilot, holding an ATP, the FAA’s highest license.
Today Adam is dedicated to working with individuals that want to change their relationship to drinking. Families to help untangle crisis situations through a loving and inclusive approach to interventions often call Adam Banks. Adam often engages in coaching executives, pilots, and physicians in recovery.
Suntra offers a free video course for families considering hosting an intervention for a family member.
Suntra Modern Recovery provides medical treatment for alcohol and opiate addictions via video visit with medical doctors. Suntra’s alcohol and drug intervention services are available locally in New York, Long Island, the Hamptons as well as nationally and internationally. Treatment for alcohol, opiate and heroin addiction, including Suboxone treatment, can start today.