Addiction (whether to drugs or alcohol) affects everyone in the family, which is why it’s commonly referred to as a “family disease” — the family disease of addiction. It causes members of a family to develop coping methods that help them interact with one another because no one really knows , understands and/or is willing to admit, let alone confront, the underlying problem – namely that substance misuse (not the job or the kids or a bad day at the office…) has changed the way a loved one thinks, how they feel, what they say and what they do. I call it, “The Dance.”
To help you more fully understand what I mean by “The Dance,” as well as my suggestions for change, let me first give you some background on one of my own Dance stories…
If a loved one enters a residential treatment program – it usually lasts around 28 days. At the end of treatment, clients are encouraged to go to an SLE – Sober Living Environment. That can be their home (as long as all alcohol has been removed and all persons in the home agree to abstain from drinking), or it can be a treatment center sponsored SLE (usually a home in a residential neighborhood where other clients also reside, along with an employee of the treatment center), or it can be a similar type of a facility.
Now to my experience…
I’d told my loved one of my fears about what might happen if he insisted on coming home as his SLE, instead of following the treatment center’s recommendation and going to one of theirs. Yet, when the time came, he started doing that “thing” he did, and I started doing that “thing” I did. He with that “I’m so sorry” expression, pressing me to let him come to our home instead of a treatment center SLE, to let him do what he wanted — playing on the notion that if I loved him, I would. And there I was acting on my feeling that I needed to somehow make it okay for him because if I loved him, I should. After all, he’d stopped drinking, gone into rehab — what more could I want or expect him to do? But I wasn’t ready. I was scared – what if I didn’t do what he needed done and he relapsed. And I was enjoying not having the constant worry about “what if…”.
It was us doing the “dance” we’d done a thousand times before. That day, I was furious to find myself even considering doing it, again. I erupted!
I erupted from a place so deep — a place where years of broken promises, lies, disappointments and deceit had festered, until this one. . . more. . . tiny. . . little request proved to be the last straw. I erupted because I simply didn’t know how to feel, let alone say, “No, this isn’t right for me. I don’t care if it’s right for you or the man in the moon. It isn’t right for me!
Instead, I was getting it all mixed up in my love for him and my ingrained belief that I had to do what he wanted as a demonstration of that love. I was getting it all mixed up in my belief that not doing so would be selfish on my part and in my world, being selfish was bad, bad, bad. Suddenly, it all came crashing in, and my fury poured out as we engaged one more time in the dance of manipulation we both did so well – a dance choreographed by years of fear, anger, addiction, codependency, and love.
In dancing, it only takes one partner to change the step and thus the entire dance; it may even end the dance. The same is true in a family’s recovery from this family disease of addiction. You see, everyone in the family changes to some extent – they have to in order to cope. But it’s that changing that contributes to the family disease because no one is talking about the truth of the matter (generally because no one fully understands what it is). And that is that addiction — the substance of abuse — has chemically, structurally and functionally changed a loved one’s brain. Therefore, as long as the substance is in the system — that loved one’s brain — there can be no other outcome. What they say, do, think, feel is muddled / clouded by the compromised brain function caused by their disease. Trying to control or work around or adapt to that changed brain is what confounds the family members and causes them to change, as well.
What’s the answer? Stop the DENIAL that substance misuse isn’t the problem — it IS. It’s not the kids, spouse, bad day at the office…. It is substance misuse triggering the embedded, hijacked, addiction-related brain maps and thereby compromised brain functioning. If the addict/alcoholic cannot control their brains while impaired, the family member certainly can’t control their loved one because the brain is what controls everything a person thinks, feels, says and does.
It just takes one to stop the dance, to change the steps and start a new dance. But if both change and learn the new steps and practice those steps, together, a new dance is created. Sometimes one or both will go back to the old one – that’s normal – it’s what is most comfortable; it’s what they’ve practiced for years. But a new dance is possible. It may be together; it may be solo, but it is possible. It takes learning the new steps, and it takes a lot of practice.
Suggestions for partners (addict/alcoholic, parent, spouse, child, sibling) wanting to change their dance:
- Accept that addiction (whether it’s to drugs or alcohol) is a chronic, often relapsing brain disease. It is not a moral weakness, nor a shameful lack of willpower. It is generally a misunderstood disease that often goes undiagnosed for some time. Until diagnosed and treated, it causes the person with the disease to act and behave in ways they normally would not act or behave because of the chemical, structural and functional changes in the brain caused by the disease.
- Accept that your partner (or you) has/have the disease.
- Accept that the partner dealing their addict/alcoholic partner’s undiagnosed, misunderstood, unhealthily discussed brain disease has suffered their own brain and physical changes; brain and physical changes that must also be addressed and/or treated, if necessary.
- Understand that healing the brain disease is complicated and takes time but there are many, many options for doing so.
- Do not look to one another for help, otherwise you will pick up your old dance. Seek individual help (there’s plenty of time for partners’ help down the line once everyone is more settled in their individual recovery) and do what you can immediately to start healing your brain: nutritional eating, exercise, adequate sleep, mindfulness practices. If necessary, get therapy with a professional who is an addictions specialist around any underlying issues, such as childhood trauma or mental illness.
- Most importantly – Relax. Breathe. It takes time, but there is great joy to be had in moments of every day. Just remember, you’re learning new steps, a new dance. It will take practice, but the learning and practice can be interesting, fun, engaging… as well as life-changing along the way.
My book, Loved One In Treatment? Now What!, provides more detail and implementation suggestions on all of these concepts (and it’s just over 100 pages, so it’s a relatively quick read!).