The Family Secret - Stand Up Against Addiction and RISE

"Loving the person is not loving the disease"
Jennifer Russo is Clinical Director for Summit Behavioral Health in Union, NJ (Courtesy image)

We all know the three rules for a dysfunctional family: “Don’t Talk, Don’t Think, Don’t Feel”. You are entitled to nothing, but expected of everything. I have seen this all way too much working with families and addiction, --hell I even have personal experience with these rules in my family. Don’t air your dirty laundry!!!

How do you fight this relentless disease? How do you address the pain as a family, without living in shame, self-loathing or guilt? The answer is simple, and I am almost always met with resistance at first, but I tell you as a professional in this field, it works. My objective is first to define addiction, as well as recovery, and also to identify the tools needed for surviving this family disease. The overall goal is—learning how to step into the light of revitalized hope, to healing.

There are many debates as to whether or not addiction is a disease. You will hear different objectives as to why it is not. Some are insensitive and bitter towards their own personal losses, and if you read between the lines, it is not that they have not been touched by addiction, but it is that they are still grieving, or are still angry for what devastating outcomes they have experienced. So here is where we start with the defining addiction. It is a pervasive mental illness. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-5) defines mental illness as:

“A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbances in an individual’s cognition, emotional regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental process underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress or disability in social, occupational, or other important activities. (pg.4)”

Notice that this definition is for a “mental disorder”. Lets’ identify key components to the definition of any substance use disorder.

“A problematic pattern of substance use (the behavior) leading to significant impairment or distress, as manifested by at least two of the following, occurring within 12 month period: Taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended; persistent desire or attempts to cut down or stop; a great time spent using (the compulsion); recurrent or failure at fulfilling roles, important activities (occupational, social) are reduced or given up; continued use in situations where it is physically hazardous; continued use despite knowledge of having a persistent problem; tolerance; withdrawal.” (pg.227)”

The characteristic that are identified are defined by the behavior that is compulsive (--a significant disturbance that impacts ones cognition, emotional regulation, and behavior). Keeping it simple, any addiction (food, sex, drugs, gambling, etc.) is a process in itself that leads to progressive symptoms of this mental disorder. It distorts one’s life as well as impacting a person’s self-esteem, image, and self-worth. What makes this a family disease, is how it is addressed, how the family also begins to tolerate the behaviors in ways to cope with the emotional pain of watching their loved one deteriorate.

Recovery is an act or process of restoration in something that was lost. With this, the family secret, restoring communication is key. Healing is where hope can be rebuilt and where love can begin.

 So let’s begin the conversation of healing and restoring hope… how do we get there as a family?

                First, although you cannot help someone unless they truly want it, you most certainly can have a conversation with them about your concerns. This is breaking the cycle in the re-enactment triangle of what is their trauma. With any type of abuse, there are three roles that play an important part in the traumatic event. These roles are: the victim, the perpetrator, and the observer.

For some people with addiction, this trauma can simply be having low-self-esteem that is compensated or defended with someone who appears to have a “big-ego”. This is not for every case, some people simply struggle with self-love and acceptance, they simply do not know how to give up that power in beating themselves up. They ARE trapped. They ARE alone. The person stays stuck, they become their own perpetrator and victim- where they know they need help, but can’t stop observing how they are abusing themselves. Others simply do NOT understand why they do this, but CAN’T stop.

The family also falls into this cycle, as they struggle with how to help, they may even borderline with enabling behaviors, struggle with setting limits, or curse themselves by blaming family genetics being passed down. They isolate from others, as so does their loved one. They become alone with the perpetrator. With any abuser, in where the abuse is invited back for more is through SILENCE.

What silences families is the shame, and guilt. This is the same case for the person with the substance use disorder. The only way to rise above the shame and guilt, is to own those feelings. Which requires a conversation. How any one ends abuse, is by telling everyone, and anyone who can help. The point is breaking the cycle of loneliness, isolation, and self-loathing that is endless.

Where healing begins, is when acceptance comes from not just the person with the substance use disorder, but with the family members as well. Healing happens when you can talk about a problem and reach out for support, as well as restoring hope. It comes from supports that “will keep loving you, until you learn to love yourself.” Becoming a survivor is possible, when you can talk about your trauma, as well as your part in it, and how you are changing your self-approach that was once self-abuse, to self-acceptance with love.

LOVING the person, is not loving the disease. You can release with love, you don’t have to tolerate the abuse. Stand up against addiction and RISE.  Don’t keep the family secret.


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