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Substance use impact goes far beyond the individual

The balance between enabling and supporting.

The stereotype scenario of someone who uses substances often involves the image of a single individual hiding away to engage in drug or alcohol use. And while these activities may occur in solitary settings, they are far from isolated incidents.

Mary Roufa, community service manager for Rosecrance, says anyone who has dealt with drug or alcohol dependence directly or through the life of a loved one knows that it’s impossible to completely separate the addiction from the lives of others.

“Addiction is a family disease,” says Roufa. “Like any other chronic illnesses, it impacts all members of the family as family members live their lives in response to the manifestations of that illness.”

In fact, the lives of many family members can be altered long before an addict faces his or her issues. “Family members have a tendency to tolerate poor behavior and warning signs with their loved ones more so than the same behaviors coming from a stranger,” Roufa says. “They know the wonderful qualities of their loved ones and rationalize the unacceptable behaviors displayed by the addict.”

People who used substances are well aware of the leeway they get from family members, and can act accordingly. “Addicts are very skilled at eliciting guilt from their family members when they attempt to hold them accountable,” she says.

In some cases, the lack of accountability is compounded directly or unintentionally by loved ones’ actions. In either case, the enabling from family members allows the addict to continue down his or her path of self-destruction. Enabling can take many forms, according to Roufa, including making excuses for the addict, giving them money or paying their bills, allowing certain privileges – like the use of a cell phone or a car – even though those privileges get used to fuel connections to drugs or alcohol. In some cases, the enabling is more obvious. Family members pay fines and legal fees incurred by the addict or bail them out of jail if they’re arrested. These small and large actions often stem from a family member’s reluctance to face reality. “There’s a horrible sense of shame that family members feel when it comes to admitting their loved one may have a problem, until the problem becomes so huge it can’t be ignored anymore,” Roufa says.

When support fails

Still, many family members think they’re helping, or in many cases, just being there to provide support. But at some point, supporting is often confused for enabling. “It can be difficult for family members to distinguish supporting someone they love from enabling destructive behaviors,” says Roufa. “But family members need to actually see and understand how they think helping their loved one is actually hurting them, which is the last thing a family member wants to do.”

Again, manipulation of the family member can play a role in dealing with addiction in the family. “Addicts may threaten to never see their family again, or offer up some scenario that causes a family member to envision a horrible outcome,” says Roufa. “But family members often realize they do not have the power to make their loved one stop, but they do have control over what they will support and do to help the addict. They stop enabling and allow the natural and logical consequences to happen for their addict.

And it’s this decision, Roufa says, that often triggers the addict’s realization that he or she needs help. “That is how addicts can come to the conclusion finally that maybe they don’t want to keep doing what they are doing and ask for help,” she says.

Ultimately, Roufa says that family members need to rely on the Three C’s when it comes to dealing with a loved one’s addiction: You did not Cause it, you Can’t Control it and you Can’t Cure it. “Family is not so powerful to cause someone else’s disease,” Roufa says. “They’ve tried to control it and that doesn’t work. And they are not so powerful to be able to cure it, especially since there is no cure for addiction. There is only the hope to manage it.”


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