I went to my first AA meeting at 10 years old. You’re probably wondering why a 10 year old would need to go to an AA meeting. The truth is they don’t, ever. Support group meetings for addiction are no place for a 10 year old or a 20 year old or a 50 year old for that matter. My father was mandated to a year of AA meetings in the late 1970’s, and my siblings and I would attend meetings with him from time to time. In the years that followed we also attended Ala-tot, Ala-teen, Alanon, and I even went to one adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) meeting prior to going to AA myself as an adult. That was a trip, but we’ll save that story for another article. Thinking that substance use problems (i.e. addiction) is a family issue goes way back to the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous. The idea that addiction is a family disease has literally been tearing families apart for the better part of 80 years.
The book Alcoholics Anonymous which is the primary basis of addiction treatment in the United States includes a chapter called “To Wives”. It states, “Try not to condemn your alcoholic husband, no matter what he says or does. He is just another very sick, unreasonable person. Treat him, when you can as though he had pneumonia. When he angers you, remember that he is very ill.” (p. 108) But then it goes on to add more confusion by stating, “There is an important exception to the foregoing” which is that some men (the book was written from an entirely misogynistic point of view) are just bad people and should not be tolerated. Certainly the book does not want to be responsible for wives remaining in an abusive relationship, but it’s clear from the rest of the chapter that families with a heavy substance user are expected and encouraged to excuse the substance user’s behavior; well, at least most of it.
Throughout the history of addiction treatment families have gotten a contradictory message. They have been told that addiction is a disease, therefore your loved one is very sick and must be treated like you would treat a very sick person; and if your loved one does not stop using (does not stop having the supposed symptoms of this supposed disease) then you must implement tough love by cutting off all contact and support with them. Many treatment providers now require close family and friends of the substance user to attend Family Programs and family counseling where they learn about the ravages of this disease and how they should implement tough love. In treatment programs those closest to the substance user are made to feel at least in part responsible for the substance user’s heavy use and ongoing struggles. This is both wrong and tragic.
Many people who love someone struggling with heavy use have already over-analyzed their own behaviors, looking for some explanation as to why their loved one does what they do. Many already feel responsible on some level, and many believe if they would just do something different that they could get their loved one to change. Addiction treatment family programs reinforce this erroneous thinking, leaving families stressed out, in constant conflict and feeling totally helpless. The massive misinformation has quite literally hijacked common sense and taken the responsibility away from the only person that can change their behavior, the substance user, and put it on those who are truly powerless to change the substance user, the family.
If you love someone who is struggling, the key to understanding how you can most effectively help the substance user, and also how you can improve your own life is to get the right information. There is no disease that renders people powerless over substances, and furthermore substances don’t cause people to become angry, violent, abusive, devious, promiscuous, or engage in criminal behavior, etc. Substance use does not inherently cause hurtful behaviors, and there are a great many people who drink or use drugs heavily who don’t hurt anyone and follow the law in all other matters. You, as a family member, do not have to stay in a relationship with anyone with whom you don’t want to stay. And if you choose to stay, it doesn’t mean you’re codependent and sick yourself. Likewise if you choose to help the substance user, it doesn’t make you an enabler, nor does it cause the substance user to choose to keep using.
You can love whomever you want to love, and you can invest in any relationship in which you want to invest, but it’s important that you do it for you, and not in an attempt to get the substance user to do what you want them to do. Because as you may already have learned from experience, what you do or don’t do with or for the substance user, has little if any bearing on what the substance user will do. So do what makes you happiest for you, and set aside guilt, shame and worry, as these are not helpful to you.
You can take heart in knowing that based on data that has been consistent over several decades, nearly everyone with a substance use problem overcomes it at some point in their lives, and most do it without treatment. Their substance use is not your fault, nor is it your responsibility. There are ways you may be able to help your loved one, and there are ways you can improve your own life regardless of that the substance user chooses for their future. The key to improving your lives is to learn the truth about addiction, and then make an informed decision based on what you want for your life.
If you would like to get more information on the truth about addiction and how you can more effectively help your loved one and improve your own life, you can read The Freedom Model for the Family. It’s available in digital download on The Freedom Model’s website and in paperback on Amazon. You can check out our other family services at www.thefreedommodel.org as well. We are here to help.