Family is a dynamic, evolving social structure which can be the best support system one can ask for as well as the most pain inflicting relationship one can have. The family is an interconnected, interdependent system in which dysfunction in one person affects the other and vice versa. When one person in the family is suffering from addiction or any mental illness, it can be result of a long term familial dysfunction. However, the family often blames the person who is least functional which is the addict for the problems, not realising that the addiction has grown partly from the family systems in place. Addiction, from this perspective is just a physical manifestation of already existing issues in the family life.
When an addict begins their recovery journey in a rehabilitation center, they learn to take responsibility for their behavior which has had negative consequences for others. But when they go back home, old conditioned patterns of communication with the family arise again. Blaming, avoiding conflict, over involvement in family member’s life, negative judgement of others, etc. take over from both ends the addict as well as the family members. This is why many rehabilitation centers offer family or codependency counselling to help an individual adapt to one’s family and loved ones after treatment.
What are triggers?
Triggers are situations, people, places, objects or anything which can begin a chain of thoughts or feelings that may lead to craving a substance. Triggers can be external such as visiting your usual party place, or internal such as boredom, anxiety, etc. This distinction, however is arbitrary and for understanding purposes and in reality both external and internal triggers overlap. Family triggers, then are situations or interactions with the family that can result in craving.
Having said this, it is important to note that though a family member or external situation can serve as a vehicle for craving, each individual is still responsible for the craving and the consequences of their actions. One cannot blame the family members or any situation for a relapse. That responsibility lies with oneself.
What are Family triggers?
Let’s look at some of the common family triggers that can be present in one’s recovery:
- Guilt tripping
The addict expects that when they go back, all is forgiven and the family pats then on the back for becoming sober. But the family many times has not had adequate counselling and opportunities to process their emotions towards the past suffering they had to endure due to the addiction. These pent up emotions resurface and theur way to express may be in guilt-tripping form. This process can be unconscious and they may not mean to induce guilt but unconsciously they are. Trying to induce guilt by recalling drunken events or intoxicated fights the addict had, or what they went through while the addict was in rehab, blaming the addict for financial loss are all forms of guilt tripping. All this can be expressed in a healthy format without negative judgement and when the addict is in a mentally stable space to listen to it.
- Recalling negative past events
Along the same lines, recalling negative events during the person’s addiction, even if it is done in a casual manner, can have a negative impact. Many times the person doesn’t remember what they said or did when they were intoxicated. The family member feels hurt and holds on to it, feeling like only they remember all the pain and the addict in recovery is blissfully ignorant. Choosing to share all this with the addict, without a safe space, without healthy expression and without keeping in mind the delicate mental state of the person in recovery can be dangerous and stressful for both parties and result in toxic communication.
- Overprotective attitude
It is natural for the family to feel protective about the person in recovery. But in trying to shield them from the whole world, they may become overbearing and make the person feel suffocated. The person in recovery feels free from addiction but bound in a prison of expectations and restrictions which take away their feeling of autonomy. The family has to realise that the person can’t be caged forever, has to experience life without substance and may make mistakes as well.
People who are aware of mental health issues may also harbor a stigma against people in addiction as it has impacted then directly. They may still view the person as just an addict and have prejudices or hisses against the person and their illness. Being embarrassed of the person being an addict or sent to rehab, avoiding talking about the addiction altogether, pretending it didn’t happen or viewing it as a very horrible incident that occurred due to the persons lack of will power are all signs of stigma. Stigma is detrimental to one’s recovery and may trigger shame, depressed feelings, low self esteem, guilt, in addition to craving.
The dysfunction of the family gets blamed on the addict many times. Family members who have difficulty processing emotions may keep harboring negative feelings about past events and in a heated conversation may end up blaming the addict in recovery. This may create a cycle of blaming, resentment and suppressed emotions which can be a risk factor for relapse.
- Direct and indirect pressures
Expecting an addict in recovery to be totally functional in all areas of life may be too much to ask for. Families even before and during treatment voice out their expectations for the person’s behavior, their career choices, relationships, marriage plans, etc. But the timing of saying these things can trigger an addict because they may feel pressurized to be a perfect functioning person. This pressure can lead to frustration, helplessness, irritability, low self esteem, guilt, etc.
Family membersay end up comparing the addict in recovery to how the addict was before the illness, to themselves or other family members or other people they deem as role models. These are done with the intent to motivate the person but have the opposite effect many times and can lead to negative self talk and constantly feeling not enough.
It is important to note that the family’s intentions most of the times are to support and guide the addict in recovery. But intentions do not excuse the family member from the consequence of what they are doing. If the addict in recovery is feeling attacked, blamed, or feels low about oneself, these feelings have to be taken into account. If we want to support a person we have to try to offer it in the way that the person needs it and not in the way that we see fit. These issues are discussed in family counselling in a rehabilitation center, in order to create an efficient support system for the addict when they return to their families.
At ZorbaWellness rehabilitation center for alcohol and drug addiction, Family counselling and codependency counselling is an important part of treatment. The needs and expectations of both parties (the person in recovery and their loved ones) are identified and ways to fulfill them are discussed. Various group activities with the family are conducted to allow emotional expression, healthy communication, trust building and interpersonal growth. Everyone can take a step towards their individual mental health and the collective mental health of the family!