When it comes to defeating addiction, many families feel powerless — but it doesn’t have to be that way! Here are some strong strategies and effective ways of approaching family addiction from guest authors Jeff and Debra Jay.
Effective families at some point stop spinning their wheels around addiction and take a clear-eyed look at where all their efforts have been getting them. All the things we’ve been doing, all the worry and frustration, money and stress, and the addiction is still running the show. These families take stock and get honest with themselves.
We need to change how we approach this problem.
It’s easy to think solutions start with our addicted loved one–what they do and don’t do. But it’s precisely that thinking that gets families nowhere. Solutions begin with the family (however we define family). If this feels counter-intuitive, good. Almost everything about addiction is counter-intuitive, and that’s what trips families up.
Effective families don’t try to leap over this mountain all at once. They start the journey with a few important, foundational changes. This gets them moving in the right direction.
Effective Families Reject the Label “Dysfunctional”
Families struggling with a loved one’s addiction are commonly called dysfunctional, but families effective at initiating and supporting a loved one’s recovery reject this language of pathology. Instead, they define themselves as families in crisis. Naming their experiences as normal reactions to an unmanageable situation makes it less threatening to reach out for solutions.
Dysfunctional isn’t used when describing families facing other brain diseases. Families coping with Alzheimer’s, for instance, also experience years of crisis, hyper-vigilance, controlling behaviors, disturbed emotions, and similar consequences. Yet, unlike families facing addiction, they aren’t thought of as dysfunctional. Families seen as dysfunctional risk being categorized as an outgroup and, as a result, are less understood and more likely to encounter an empathy gap–including self-empathy.
What is often perceived as family dysfunction is actually the automatic response of the nervous system. Each time addiction creates a crisis, the nervous system reacts quickly to create safety. This isn’t a choice. When families are given no meaningful solutions to the addiction problem, it makes perfect sense that they get stuck reacting in the same way again and again.
Effective Families Dismantle the Most Dangerous Myths
Addiction is a disease that not only doesn’t allow its victims to reach out for help, it drives them to actively push help away. A survey by the Hazelden Foundation found that 77% of patients report choosing treatment only after friends or relatives intervened. Yet, families looking for advice are likely to hear action-stopping myths, something that tells them to do nothing.
The most common action-stopping myth is: You can’t help alcoholics and addicts until they want help. The only choice here is to allow addiction to run through the family like a freight train. Effective families turn this myth around, asking instead, “If we can’t help her until she wants help, what will get her to want help?” This opens the door to seeking solutions.
Another version of this myth is: You must let the addicted person hit bottom. This is a risky plan with many unknowables. One thing rarely discussed is that families hit that bottom, too. Effective families want solutions that safeguard everyone.
Effective Families Don’t Rely on Kitchen Table Solutions
As a society, we place our focus on problems caused by addiction but mostly ignore family solutions. As a result, families coping with a loved one’s addiction are left to invent kitchen table solutions. The ineffectiveness of these homespun ideas is due to the counterintuitive nature of helping an addicted person–What feels like the right thing to do is usually wrong. As a result, these efforts don’t produce results over time and many families just give up. That’s when we hear them say, “We’ve tried everything, nothing works.”
Effective families don’t give up. They begin searching outside the family for action-based solutions. They look for strategies based on positive brain actions, which broaden thinking and produce better skills. Positive strategies treat addicted loved ones as a counterpart, not an enemy. Effective families come to understand that everyone is sharing a different experience of the same problem.
Effective Families Know They Must Unite to Win
Addiction thrives in chaos–the more family members are at odds with one another, the better. Addiction also likes being protected by the secret keepers. What addiction doesn’t like is a family united, working together as a committed team. Therefore, this is the first step to becoming a serious adversary to addiction.
Start by building a family recovery team. Gather a small core of respected family members and friends to be in charge of selecting appropriate team members. When it comes to addiction, this is essential. Even Harvard Business Review exhorts the value of teams: “Few people realize that a group can accomplish what an individual alone cannot do.”
Start learning together. Seek out the best action-based information that teaches families what to do before, during, and after treatment. Once this is accomplished, a family recovery team is ready to make informed decisions on how to begin.
Take-Aways for a Deeper Connection
Get Help Give Help is a compilation of short podcasts called snap trainings, providing families with information otherwise hard to access. We are part of a dedicated team that developed this totally noncommercial website, offering good direction on how to help addicted loved ones move through the entire treatment and recovery process.
The Best Minds Podcast creates a space for families and the best minds in the addiction field to come together. We founded Best Minds believing everyone should be able to benefit from the massively brilliant knowledge base of top addiction experts across the country.
Defeating Addiction — Sources
About the Authors
JEFF JAY, CIP is a professional interventionist, educator, and author. He has been working full time in the substance abuse treatment field since 1986, including work for the Hazelden Foundation. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota and is a Certified Intervention Professional. He has appeared as an expert on CNN, PBS, and The Jane Pauley Show. Jeff has served as president of the Terry McGovern Foundation in Washington, DC, and on the boards of directors for several professional organizations. He and Debra Jay head a national private practice that provides intervention and crisis management services. He is a former clinician with Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center.
Jeff specializes in complex interventions for impaired professionals. He is also skilled in working with baby boomers, older adults, and younger adults. His expertise is sought after for cases which are complicated by psychological issues, such as anxiety disorders, bipolar disease and trauma. He also conducts interventions for eating disorders, gambling addiction, sex addiction, and other issues. His personal recovery from addiction dates from October 4, 1981. “I believe in intervention for a very simple reason,” says Jeff. “Intervention saved my life.”
DEBRA JAY is a noted author, speaker, and trainer for addiction professionals. She was a guest lecturer for Wayne State University graduate studies on addiction for fourteen years, and has served as board member for Brighton Hospital, St. John Providence Health System, and Dawn Farm. A recipient of the 2012 Letitia M. Close B.V.M Award in recognition of a significant ministry in helping women with the disease of addiction, Debra has also been writing a newspaper advice column on familiesand addiction since 1996.
Debra was the addiction expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show for 3 seasons and has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show. She is a graduate of The Ohio State University and the Hazelden Addiction Professionals Training Program.