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Family Addiction Treatment Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health

Addiction treatment is a multi-billion dollar industry in this country and it’s still growing. Within the last two decades families are being drawn into the swirling cauldron of treatment as well. If you Google “addiction is a family disease” you will see a number of treatment programs stating that families of substance users also need treatment.

Many providers are cautious not to overtly blame parents and spouses for their loved ones substance use problems. They will say to the families that they understand the trauma they may have experienced at the hands of the substance user. And they then claim that is why families need treatment; that they need to heal too. While dealing with a substance user can be difficult and take a toll on your mental health, family addiction treatment can exacerbate these problems, because treatment providers have got the problem known as addiction all wrong.

The underlying cause of many negative emotions and behaviors is fear. Going through life with intense fear can lead to self-centered behavior, which then reinforces negative thinking and eventually crowds out positive thoughts and emotions. Some heavy substance users who live in a constant state of fear of responsibility are frightened by the hard work needed to grow and develop past their problems. In this state positive life changes are slowed dramatically or come to a complete stop.

In the case of family members and friends of substance users, their lives can become consumed with fear and worry the substance user will get hurt, sick or die. Many parents spend sleepless nights waiting for the substance user to get home safely, or they may wait several days for a returned call or text. Perhaps the substance user has already survived a severe accident or overdose, and this heightens anxiety immeasurably. You can’t watch the local news without learning of some tragedy attributed to drug use or drinking, and each time you think, that could be my son, daughter, spouse, friend or parent. There is no doubt that fear and worry for your loved one’s safety can take a toll on your life and health.

How can you alleviate the fear, worry and stress caused by the behaviors of those you love? It is important to understand the reason for your anxiety. It is caused by legitimate feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. If you love a heavy substance user and have been trying to help them to change, you know beyond a doubt that you cannot control the behaviors of others, no matter how much you want to control them. Unfortunately the goal of many family addiction treatment programs is to have you engage in behaviors that are supposed to “help” the substance user, or in other words, control them in some way. You are told to implement tough love by taking away financial help, living arrangements, childcare, among other things. Some families are advised to stop all contact — this is all in an effort to force the individual to stop using.

Many families resort to hiring a professional interventionist whose job it is to organize a family style intervention where people gather to, in essence, corner the substance user and tell them the harm they are causing themselves and the family. The goal of the intervention is to force the individual to go to rehab through what amounts to public shaming and overly emotional dialogue. Families tend to believe that is the only way to help their loved one when in reality most interventions are not successful and serve only to create a deeper wedge between the substance user and the people who love him/her.

When you feel as if your loved one is self destructing with drugs and alcohol it is understandable that you become willing to try anything to force a change in behavior. So, if intervention isn’t the answer, then what is? How do you help someone who doesn’t believe their behavior is problematic, or won’t even have a conversation about what you see is a serious problem?

First and foremost it is vitally important for you to gain control of the only life you can control: your own. If dealing with the substance user has made you feel out of control, depressed, anxious, frustrated, and angry; if you’re not sleeping or eating, or it’s impacting your job and relationships with others you love, then it’s important to take a step back from the situation and regroup. Learn what addiction is and is not, and know this: more than 90% of heavy substance users stop their addictions as a function of age. And most do so without formal help or treatment.

Many families make the mistake of becoming overly emotional, envisioning worst case scenarios, and feeling certain these scenarios will play out at any minute. They feel a sense of panic, and this can cloud judgment and lead to heated discussions that often end in the substance user leaving to seek out the only comfort they know – getting drunk and/or high. Ultimately, when talking to someone about how they can improve their life (i.e. the substance user), you want to come from a position of being truly happy in your own life. Like any serious situation, cooler heads always prevail.

To get yourself back in the driver’s seat of your own life, you can start by making plans for your future that don’t include contingencies for the substance user’s behaviors. Assume they will continue on their current path, while hoping they will change, but make plans for your own happiness and fulfillment regardless of their choices. You can learn through reading The Freedom Model for the Family exactly what addiction is and is not; and you learn that you don’t have to feel guilty, or shame-filled, or over-burdened. You get to do what you feel is right for you; meaning you can do as much or as little for the substance user that you want to do, and feel good about it.

By reading The Freedom Model, you will learn that your loved one is not sick with a disease, they are simply making choices that they feel will bring them some level of happiness. You will learn that it is ok for you to set higher expectations for your loved ones and be clear about what those expectations are up front. If you don’t want illicit drugs in your home, let the substance user know this and be firm. You can be assertive without being angry, offensive or threatening. If you do not want to be around your loved one when they are drinking or intoxicated you can say so calmly but firmly.

You can tell them, “I know I can’t control your behavior, so I’m going to stop trying.” You can tell them that you want for them to be happy and feel good about life, and you’re willing to help, but you know that their happiness is up to them.

You can be clear with them that you have learned you can’t control their behaviors and nor should you, so now it is time for you to build a happy life for yourself. Some of the consequences of their choices and behaviors may be sickness or job loss, family or legal troubles, or even an untimely death, but know that all substance users are aware of these potential consequences and are willing to accept them. Ultimately their choices have nothing to do with you and that knowledge can be freeing.

Of course, be prepared for your resolve to be tested. You will have to decide if you will follow through on your plans and what you are willing to do for them. When that time comes, whatever you decide to do should not be done out of fear or guilt, as these are needless emotions that get in the way of achieving your goals, but out of what will make you most happy at that moment and what is in line with your goals. Keep in mind, too, what you do has little or no bearing whatsoever on future decisions your loved one will make with respect to substance use. You may provide them help and they may run right back to the situation that landed them in trouble in the first place, or they may finally decide their life is unacceptable to them and make a change. But they are equally likely to do either of these whether you provide them help or let them work it out on their own.

Dealing with a heavy substance user can be quite stressful and some people seek the help of a therapist, but caution is recommended. A good therapist will not simply listen to your problems, suggest you go to an Alanon meeting, or diagnose you and write you a prescription. An effective therapist will help you put things in perspective and give you concrete ways to adjust your thinking, focusing on things you can change about yourself only. There is no point talking in therapy about how you wish others would behave because you have no power to change them. A good therapist will instead steer the conversation to areas of your life you can change.

Many people become overly anxious or fearful because they focus on the worst-case scenario. They engage in exaggerated negative self-talk and their fears become over-inflated. Like substance users who learn cravings are simply investing in habitual thoughts over which they have full control, you also have control over your thoughts of dread and doom. Each time you begin to worry about your loved one, quickly replace that thought with the reality that most people get over this problem, and your loved one has the ability to make a change when he or she is ready. Worry serves no purpose and can only hurt you.

As you systematically identify these thoughts and feelings and replace them, and actively get on with your own life, you will notice your negative thoughts becoming much less frequent. They may never go away entirely, but they will become manageable and based more on reality, and not on your worst fears of what might happen. This is called faithful thinking. It has nothing to do with religion or spirituality but rather faith that things will be ok, because usually they are. Faithful thinking requires practice and diligence, but you will see you do have control over your thoughts.

Remember, most substance users do change their lives at some point. As long as they know they have the power and ability to change, the likelihood is great they will change at some point. Plan for a happy future, and feel great about it. It’s infectious and you have no idea the profound effects it will have on those around you.

If you or someone you love are ready to break free from the addiction and recovery cycle, and you are seeking a non-12 step program, call us at 888-424-2626.

For more information about The Freedom Model go to

Michelle Dunbar is the co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and The Freedom Model for the Family. She is the Executive Director of the Saint Jude Retreat. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use problem, there is an empowering solution that has proven to be three times more effective than addiction treatment and twelve times more effective than 12 step meetings. Go to for more information or call 888-424-2626.


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