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ADDICTION & RECOVERY: It’s a Family Affair

Is it accurate to say that recovery is a family affair, requiring a systemic, psychic change?

As an addict in recovery and a clinician on the frontlines, I’ve learned that effective treatment entails a heightened understanding of the ripple effect of this cunning, baffling, entanglement called addiction. The dis-eased host may be the addict, but the parasitic dependence of addiction has its grip on more than just the active addict.

In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) the total societal and health costs of alcohol and illegal drug use in the United States is estimated to be $167 billion. Drug abuse has a devastating impact on a person’s life, the lives of their family, their co-workers and workplace environment, as well as the broader community.

If you can’t see the web of dysfunction that occurs from addiction, let’s focus on the true depth of the problem. It’s easy to point the finger at the addict, the only singular point of reference for those who are on the outside looking in. However, this is a narrow lens.

Let’s embrace a broader perspective:

For a school project I once presented on “How the Changes in Environment Affect the Growth of Bacteria.” The bacteria flourished under certain conditions and died off under others. A moist, wet environment stimulated bacterial growth while a dry environment inhibited growth.

If one were to put the addict in a petri dish and glance under the microscope, it would be clearly evident that the environment has a great deal of influence on how the “dis-ease” thrives or subsides; specifically, the familial environment. This is Psychology 101: Bowenian basics. According to Bowen’s Nuclear Family Emotional Process, family tensions tend to find a center of gravity in particular family members or relationships. For example, anxiety is often disproportionately absorbed by one individual or relationship, which relieves the others of its deleterious effects. By nature, people do not want to hurt one another, but when chronic anxiety governs behavior, it inevitably leads to suffering. The notorious absorbent sponge is otherwise known as the “Identified Patient” (IP).

When bacteria absorb moisture in the environment, they proliferate, affecting anything they come in contact with. Equivalently, the addict’s behavior is exacerbated by the dysfunctional family system, thus causing a wave of havoc in his/her life. This isn’t an excuse to play the blame game but more of an opportunity to direct one’s gaze inward.

The addict must recover, but at the same time, family members must do their own due diligence.

According to this report on alcohol addiction in the British Journal of Addiction, “Other research suggests that families and friends of potential clients, looking for advice in persuading them to go to treatment, contact agencies much more frequently than the potential client.”

In my personal experience of speaking with the family members who initiate the calls and after gathering more background information, I invariably find that the concerned relatives are just as ill as the addicts, yet completely oblivious to the part they play in the chaos. Indeed, the addict may very well embody the unhinged and tortured Lady Macbeth but the family unit itself personifies the madness of an entire Shakespearean drama.

“Thou’rt mad to say it.” –Lady Macbeth

The apple will not, fall far from the tree—and it is the tree that actually needs tending. This suggests that we focus on the whole system rather than the weak link. But once this ideology is adopted, another problem emerges: When the addict heals and becomes healthy, the other family members deteriorate because the bulk of the family hysteria was carried on the shoulders of the addict. Once the addict exits the stage, the show is NOT over. It’s an encore presentation showcasing the nuclear family as the last act.

Even Macbeth asked the infamous question, “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d?” Provoking the following response from John Hall: “Therein the patient must minister to himself.”

Now, I’m no novice to this scenario. As someone who spent 20 years in the trenches of drug addiction, I can say firsthand that my multiple attempts at recovery were often undermined by parental background noise. Thus in the case of recovery, the preaching is intended for each and every family member as well as the suffering addict. In my case, what, or should I say who, was attempting to aid me was only perpetuating the problem. Therefore, what occurs in the absence of such counsel is a faulty foundation embedded with cracks, unstable and unequipped to foster familial stability and this is what it looks like down the line: divorce, emotionally stunted children who carry on their parent’s legacy, and a lifetime membership to self-help programs.

I could go back to Bowenian basics and say it was sibling position or the enabling parent that led to my plight, but in the end, none of this analysis points to the overarching solution: The entire family unit, including but not limited to, the ailing addict, must seek help and must work together without playing the blame/shame game.

So how does this happen?

Well, there are various ways in which the dominant models of alcoholism and addiction, such as the moral model, the disease model, and the learned behavior model, combine in people’s thinking. But what about the responsibility model? According to Vetere and Henley, “It is crucial for family members to discuss their possible roles in maintaining patterns of problem drinking, with the implications for them making changes in their behavior.” At some point, mustn’t we all take a look in the mirror? 

If I’m funding my child’s drug habit by acting as their financial buffer, do I not have a role in the calamity? The dis-ease of addiction is engineered like an organism; if you prick a finger, the entire body releases factors to heal the wound and stanch the bleeding, which enable the formation of a blood clot preventing further bleeding. Similarly, recovery from addiction requires an intricate coordinated effort among the family unit.

So, just as it’s impossible to heal the isolated injured finger without causing the entire physiological system to kick in, addiction is an active complex with living, moving components necessitating a total systemic remedying. The addict cannot fully recover if the enabler does not amend his/her behavior as well.

With this final prognosis in mind, what will the new prescription for addiction treatment be? Perhaps our beloved Pointer Sisters, not immune from the pervasiveness of addiction themselves, knew the formula long ago:

All of the people around us to say,

Can we be that close.

Just let me state for the record,

We’re giving love in a family dose. 


Anjali Talcherkar, MA, is a writer, an individual in recovery, and an avid yogini. She received her master’s degree in Psychology and Addiction Studies from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is currently completing a PhD in Mind-Body Medicine and Integrative Mental Health from Saybrook University. Talcherkar’s forthcoming book is a personal memoir and Eastern interpretation of addiction and the 12 Steps. 

Website: anjalitalcherkar.com; contact: [email protected]

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