Recovery from addiction. Just three words, such a big meaning, such a confusing concept – especially for those living with the family disease of addiction. Questions swirl: What does a person do? How is it done? Can it possibly work? Where do I start? If it’s not me but my family member, what can I do?
I gave one of my favorite presentations at a treatment center last night, “Understanding Neural Networks and the Brain, Unlocking the Secrets to Addiction (Alcohol and Drugs) and Its Impacts on the Family.” It’s one I give to the drug addict/alcoholic clients and their family members. It’s so heartening to see their spirits lift as they come to better understand addiction for what it is – a chronic, often relapsing brain disease – and learn more about how a person “gets addiction,” how and why the brain is involved in addiction, and that it’s the brain disease aspect of addiction that changes a person’s behaviors when they have the substance in their systems. Equally heartening is to see their spirits lift as they come to better understand the brain changes and trauma suffered by family members – to better appreciate it was their chronically activated fight-or-flight system that made them feel (and often act) so crazy, out of control, scared, anxious… running on empty, running on fear alone. Feelings, by the way, that are very similar to those felt by the drug addict/alcoholic.
But one thing that really comes through every time I give this presentation is an overwhelming sense of, “Oh my gosh — this is so overwhelming — now what?” It’s so scary to even think about what all has to happen between here and there (wherever there is). And so I wanted to share what I tell my groups, take a deep breath, break it down — anything you do towards the positive is a move in the right direction.
Here are my “First Things First” suggestions for early Recovery From Addiction:
The first thing to understand is “The Dance of the Family Disease of Addiction.” This is important as it drives home the point that either “side” (either the addict|alcoholic or the family member|friend) can start the change regardless of whether the other “side” is fully on board or even wants to start.
Accept that addiction is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease.
Take your time to really browse through this entire website, The Addiction Project, a collaboration of NIAAA, NIDA, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and HBO. It explains the disease of addiction (whether to drugs or alcohol), why some people become addicted, what effective treatment looks like, and so much more.
Learn as much as you can about what happens in the brain of an addict | alcoholic as a result of the brain disease of addiction and about what happens in the brains of the family member, as well.
I wrote my latest book, Loved One In Treatment? Now What! for just this reason. To help the family member, the friend, the drug addict/alcoholic, the grandparent, the child… anyone who is trying to understand what’s happened and how in the heck you find a way out. [It’s a short book, too :)!] This post also gives a snippet of the impacts on the family: “The Health Consequences of Secondhand Drinking|Drugging.”
Let go of the old notion of control.
For the drug addict/alcohol, that means to let go of the idea that you have ANY control over your brain (therefore your behaviors, what you say, what you feel or what you do) if you have any amount of your substance of choice in their body. For the family member, that means to let go of the idea that you have ANY control over your loved one’s recovery — there is absolutely no way you can control another person’s brain. Some people find 12 step programs help with this — AA or NA or the drug addict/alcoholic and AlAnon or NarAnon for the family member friend. If a 12-step program puts you off, read this post: “First Three Steps of NA | AA From a Science Perspective.”
Do what you can to improve your diet, get regular exercise and get enough sleep.
It’s remarkable what science is now proving about the role nutrition, exercise and sleep play in a person’s BRAIN health. And to heal oneself from an addiction or the brain changes associated with chronic stress is to heal one’s brain. This post shares why this is so important, “Here’s to Neural Networks and Neurotransmitters: Keys to Brain (and Therefore Emotional/Physical Health.”
Now I grant you, these suggestions won’t get you to there, but they will get you started. Healing oneself from an addiction or oneself from the chronic stress of living with it — is all about healing the brain — rewiring it. These suggestions will get you started. And then, you can let in second and third and forth things. Just know — it really, really does get better. All you have to do is start.