Collateral Damage: Helping the Families of those in the Grip of Addiction
As National Recovery Month draws to a close across the US, take a look at your own circle of friends and family, your co-workers and neighbors; who are the addicts that you know? Not the shadowy strangers seeking solace in a nameless doorway, or the stumbling drunk ricocheting like an urban pinball machine.
Look beyond those ‘traditional’ faces of addiction, to the corps of addicts living in suburban homes and condos just like yours, struggling -- and often failing -- to keep their lives from spiraling fully out of control.
And then look behind those tortured souls to the ones helplessly watching it all unravel. The silent victims: the families and loved ones of addicts who can’t love them back.
“These families need just as much help as the addicts,” says Addictions Therapist and author Candace Plattor. “Very often they are doing the wrong things -- they are actually enabling the addicts they love, because they simply don’t know what else to do.”
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, illicit drug use has been increasing in America. In 2010, about 22.6 million Americans aged 12 and older, or 8.9 percent of the population, had used an illicit drug or abused a psychotherapeutic medication (a stimulant, tranquilizer, or narcotic pain reliever) in the past month, up from 8.3 percent in 2002.
Most users are under 30, according to NIDA statistics. There were three million new users of illicit drugs in 2010, or about 8,100 new users a day – a staggering number - and 57 percent of them were under 18 years of age. Also in 2, 2 010, 23.1 percent of the 18-20 year olds that NIDA surveyed reported using an illicit drug within the previous month.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the cost of excessive alcohol consumption in the U.S. reach $223.6 billion according to the most recent statistics, or about $1.90 a drink. Three-quarters of these costs were due to binge drinking, which has far-reaching losses on workplace productivity, health care expenses, and costs related to car crashes and criminal court cases.
High profile Los Angeles attorney Robert Shapiro has been on a campaign to create awareness of addiction in young people since 2005, when he lost his beloved son Brent.
Brent, then 24, died suddenly after drinking alcohol and taking ecstasy. Shapiro, who has defended many celebrities in his long career, launched the Brent Shapiro Foundation for Drug and Alcohol Awareness, a group that raises money to fund California programs for teens at risk of substance abuse.
The Foundation hosted an A-List crowd, including Nicole Richie and Robert Duvall, at the annual Summer Spectacular fundraising event in early September. The evening brought in more than $500,000 to the Foundation's coffers, with all proceeds going to programs that promote sobriety in at-risk teens.
Among the celebrities at the benefit was Ryan O'Neal, the movie and TV actor whose turbulent relationship with son Redmond—a heroin addict and his only child with the late Farrah Fawcett— had been tabloid fodder for months. Redmond has since undergone rehab, but not before a string of arrests and a lot of family drama.
How would Plattor have advised the O'Neal family?
"I would have stressed the importance of being a united front for Redmond, setting healthy boundaries for him together, so that he could feel the love from both parents while also having no room to manipulate them.”
Early in her counseling career, Plattor found a common dynamic among family members of addicts – one that she hears all too often from families who say they are acting out of love and protection for the addicts’ health, but which are, in fact, enabling behaviors. Parents and siblings are often acting in a haze of deep love and concern for their loved one’s safety. However, what family members see as loving gestures are actions that invariably take a serious emotional toll on the family.
When the entire family focuses solely on the well-being of the addict, they usually end up hurting themselves AND their addicted loved one she says. “Family members have been putting their own needs on the back burner for such a long time that they don’t even recognize their own suffering.”
The prevalence of that family dynamic – as well as the success she saw in many of her clients when they tried some different strategies -- inspired Plattor to write her book Loving An Addict, Loving Yourself: The Top 10 Survival Tips for Loving Someone with an Addiction. Two years later, she followed it up with Loving An Addict, Loving Yourself: The Workbook which complements the original volume and allows the loved ones of addicts look at their own dysfunctional behaviors in a more in-depth way, so that they can make the positive changes that will actually help the addicts they love so much.
What is the right course of action for families caught between their love for the addict and the need for healing? Plattor says that while it might feel like the wrong thing to do, what’s most important is taking care of yourself and setting healthy, appropriate boundaries.
“Once our boundaries are set and maintained, then we can let go of our need to control others,” she adds. “If we could change other people, there would be no relationship problems in the world. But the truth is that the only person we can changes is ourselves -- and the sooner we begin to live our lives with that understanding, the easier our lives become.”
Candace Plattor, M.A., R.C.C., is the author of Loving An Addict, Loving Yourself: The Top 10 Survival Tips for Loving Someone with an Addiction and Loving An Addict, Loving Yourself: The Workbook. Candace holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology and has worked in the addictions field for nearly 25 years.
Stats taken from Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a division of the National Institutes of Health.