3 Things I Wish My Non-Addicted Friends and Family Understood about My Disease
I’ve worked with patients and their families in the addiction treatment field for 25 years. In another chapter of my career, I worked as a therapist for cancer patients and their families. Although both illnesses are life threatening, the journey of healing looks vastly different. When faced with a cancer diagnosis and treatment, I saw families rally together. When a patient and family find their way to addiction treatment, they often present like players on rival sports teams.
As a family therapist, I’ve asked countless patients in addiction treatment, “What would you like your loved ones to most understand about the disease of addiction?” My goal is to get everyone working together so that the common enemy is the disease and not each other!
Here are the 3 top responses I get:
- If I could’ve stopped on my own, I would have. Loved ones often don’t understand why their Addict/Alcoholic doesn’t just see all the negative consequences their drinking and using has caused, and just stop. It just doesn’t make logical sense to them. This is true. The pre-frontal cortex (the home of logical thinking in our brains) doesn’t get consulted regarding addictive behaviors when someone meets diagnostic criteria for Substance Use Disorder. In fact, “continued use despite negative consequences” is one way we make the diagnosis! The sense of powerlessness felt by family members to help their loved ones to stop drinking or using is the same powerlessness the patient feels (but often struggles to acknowledge).
- Because continued use despite negative consequences makes no logical sense, the Addict/Alcoholic feels SHAME. Shame research (see Dr. Brené Brown’s extensive body of work) suggests that shame is a universal emotion, yet, addicts and alcoholics seem to struggle with it exponentially. In a January 2013 blog post, Brené Brown defined shame as, “…the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” She went on to state, “I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”
- Recovery takes time. Someone in recovery needs time—time to heal their physical brain, to create new recovery-focused neural networks in the brain, but also time to practice recovery behaviors such as going to 12-step meetings, doing step work and practicing self-care. While the mental pre-occupation with their drug of choice is a diagnostic symptom for the disease, pre-occupation with recovery is a positive and necessary symptom of sobriety.
While these are three consistent points I often hear in treatment, there are many others. The goal of family recovery is to help create a system that supports the patient’s goal of long-term sobriety. The first step is to help everyone involved to know that they are on the same team-and that by practicing recovery principles together, relationships can heal! What do you wish your friends or family understood about YOUR substance use disorder? We’d love to hear from you—and help with your goal of family recovery.
Catherine Baer, MS, MS, LPC, | Clinical Director