Individuals struggling with addiction need a great deal of support. The families that struggle alongside them do as well. They are exposed to immense pain, grief and heartache. Loved ones of people with addiction may suffer a degree of caregiver fatigue and stress that has brought them to the end of their rope. Here are some common experiences:
- They have watched their loved one spiral into the darkness of addiction.
- They’ve argued with the addicted loved one, tried to stop them and sought help via any means possible but nothing has helped or the person relapsed repeatedly.
- In the process they’ve been drained emotionally and, often, their finances have also been drained in an effort to battle the addiction.
- They may be dealing with longtime family addiction issues with more than one relative in more than one generation affected.
- They unintentionally enable the person by giving them money, driving them to get drugs or allowing them to use addictive substances in the house, believing it will keep their loved one safer.
- They live in a state of terror that their loved one will overdose, get hurt or lose their life to addiction.
As a result of these experiences and others, families can suffer from cumulative trauma, on top of existing family trauma and personal trauma. Often, there is an intergenerational history of addiction, so there have been issues with other family members that have started to wear at the fabric of the family structure.
A colleague of mine, Clinical Strategist and Crisis Intervention Specialist Jane Eigner Mintz, MA, LPC, of Realife Intervention Solutions, explains it this way: “Family fatigue is systemic in that it has been going on for years. It has not only worn out their relationship with the individual, but it’s started to fracture marriages, deplete resources and there are usually significant legal problems.”
Many families have been beaten down by threats from loved ones, including threats of suicide and overdosing, and they are constantly pushed toward behaviors that enable the addict. “There’s a lot of poor decision-making that goes along with this and it’s based on terror,” says Eigner Mintz. “They’re terrified to do anything. They’re literally hostage to fear, feeling this is going to be on their head if something happens to the individual. That kind of manipulation happens all the time.”
It wears away at them over time until family members are as trapped in the addiction as the identified patient.
Bringing Hope to the Hopeless
For many families, a professional intervention is the only way to make progress with the addicted loved one. But by then they are so emotionally exhausted that they don’t think they have the strength to go through with it. An intervention has to be set up for the best outcome for the addict, and that also helps the family.
“Almost 100% of families say, ‘We just don’t even know if we have the energy to do this,’” says Eigner Mintz. “They have years of history, of individual attempts, group attempts, failed attempts, and by the time they get to me, usually people have had several different intervention attempts happen, so the families are very fractured. They’re feeling pretty hopeless. They’ve been burned through money and goodwill, and they’re terrified.”
However, interventionists are trained to walk into seemingly hopeless situations and mobilize families so that they are organized. The interventionist helps them send the correct messages to somebody that’s very reactive and reluctant to get into treatment. They offer professional support so that the family effort can create a turning point for the addict.
An addiction intervention is a strategy for getting families and loved ones to mobilize reluctant, resistant people out of a pattern of addiction for a few moments so they can begin treatment. Then the treatment teams take over and help the client find their own reasons for making changes in their life. The family is relieved that they’ve done everything they can do to help the addict, and they can begin the work they need to do for their own healing.
Assessing the Whole Family
It’s extremely important that the whole family is treated once the addicted person is safely in rehab. “Most families are deeply traumatized, and as a result of sustained trauma, there are fractures and fissures within the family, both with the identified patient and also within the family system,” says Eigner Mintz. “Brothers and sisters don’t speak to each other anymore. Mothers and fathers are at war with each other. It goes on and on.”
“It’s incumbent on the interventionist to make sure that everybody in the family has some kind of connection to services,” she says. Some of the following approaches help in getting family members the support and healing they need:
- Working with addiction recovery programs that have robust family programs
- Sending a family member on a brief retreat for emotional recovery
- Recommending the family get involved with Al-Anon and other support groups
- Attending family therapy to help work through trauma
- Coaching for families during and after the intervention process
A responsible, clinically driven interventionist is going to focus on the person that’s at the highest risk, which is the identified addict. They will get them into care and then turn their attention back to the family and discuss strategies for individual and collective growth.
“You have to look at the family as a group, but the family is made up of individuals,” says Eigner Mintz. “And each one of those individuals has an effect on the others. So the trick to untangling family systems is to look to see who needs what and why, and then enact a plan that’s going to set off a chain reaction.”