by Nirmala Raniga, Founder and Director
Healing from addiction and addictive behaviours is very often seen as a solitary process. The person struggling is viewed as the one with the problem, who needs to halt his or her destructive habits. In reality, however, alcohol and drugs are true family issues with potentially damaging effects extending beyond the person in recovery and into the lives of loved ones. Destructive compelling behaviours can upset the family structure and strain the social network, tearing apart those all-important bonds. Many studies show that social support systems can help overcome denial and the potential for relapse that can hinder an individual’s successful treatment. Because of this, therapists should view friends and family as valuable members of the treatment team.
Marc Galanter, M.D., Director, Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and Professor of Psychiatry, New York University Medical Center, refers to treating a person with addiction in tandem with his or her social network as “network therapy,” a protocol that emphasizes the importance of caregiver support on the path to restoring balance.
A traditional therapeutic network consists of people who have a vested emotional interest in the recovering person’s wellbeing, such as a spouse or significant other, parents, children, friends, and colleagues. While this support system will have an impact extending beyond therapy, whether or not network members are directly involved, research shows a greater success rate when network members join their loved one on the path to wellness. Additionally, network members find that they benefit when included in therapy sessions.
While some individuals who seek balance in their lives already have such support systems available to them, many people cannot point to such a network and need to discover, experience, and practice accepting the love and support that may be waiting to embrace them. Often people in addiction isolate themselves, and relationships are in turmoil. In such cases, one important goal of therapy can be to provide the recovering individual with the skills to help form a positive network of individuals who will bolster and champion a healthy lifestyle.
When a network is established, a therapist can engage with that support system in order to learn more about her client’s strengths, weaknesses, and destructive habits. For example, family, friends, and colleagues may offer important personal information about their loved one and share incidents of relapse that the client may be unwilling to discuss. In turn, through this process, the network can be taught to look for clues surrounding lapses in abstinence, report back to the therapist, and help create a plan on how the healing individual can make better choices to shape a brighter future.
Therapy can also provide family and friends with tools to communicate effectively with the person in treatment. For instance, those closest to the client may fear the idea of confronting him or her with what they see because they are afraid of driving their loved one away. Friends, family members, and those important in the path of healing an individual’s life are likely to benefit from learning how to address such sensitive issues. Conscious, compassionate communication is very important on this journey, and being involved with their loved one’s therapy sessions helps network members learn how to keep these vital lines of communication open beyond the therapist’s office and in everyday settings. People can often seek treatment because of the involvement and encouragement of family and friends, so learning how to keep that encouragement going in the face of potential pitfalls is an important component.
Engaging in therapy also helps the support system heal its own wounds. Drugs and alcohol not only impact the user, but also often impact those closest to that person. Family and friends in a recovering person’s network may have feelings of anger, guilt, distrust, resentment, or other emotions that in the long run only serve to eat away at the emotional health of the entire network. Such destructive emotions can also keep a network from being fully engaged in the recovery process and therapy sessions if emotions from the past prevent those individuals from joining the therapist in helping a loved one move forward.
Just as the stabilized person is at risk of relapse, so, too, are the individuals in his or her therapeutic network. The network can easily fall back into habits that may have helped enable the person with his or her addiction if tools learned through therapy are not continuously applied in their lives. Being involved with the therapy process can help them to realize this potential for relapse and emotionally heal more quickly than otherwise may have been the case. In return, the supporting individuals will likely find themselves in a better position to help the therapist aid the recovering individual over the long term.
Involvement is especially important when children are part of the journey. It is critical for young people to have help processing their emotions and dealing with any damage caused by their loved one’s unhealthy behaviours. It is imperative that children are engaged in their own healing just as much as adults to prevent an emotional relapse later on in life. Therapy can teach youngsters how to manage their emotions related to the suffering loved one, promote healthy lines of communication, and prevent any cycle of addiction where children turn to destructive habits later in their lives because they never learned how to manage the emotions they were exposed to early on.
The journey of healing for someone with an alcohol or drug addiction takes time, energy, resources, and patience. The impacted individual often requires professional assistance on an ongoing basis to maintain abstinence. A strong community of friends and family is an essential element in ensuring that a steady support system remain present. Being involved in their loved one’s recovery from the beginning through network therapy gives the supporting individuals tools to drawn upon long after the initial therapy has concluded. And, when friends and family disengage from their own destructive feelings and fully engage emotionally in their loved one’s recovery, then true healing can begin.