Whole Family Treatment
Substance dependence impacts the whole family. Significant others, close family members and friends affected by the substance dependent person are referred to as codependents. Children of alcoholics and addicts, and adult children of alcoholics and addicts are referred to as COAs and ACOAs, respectively.
The possibilities are many, and include:
- Codependents who are not substance abusers, COAs, or ACOAs
- Codependents who are also substance abusers
- Codependents who are also COAs
- Codependents who are also ACOAs
- Codependents who are also substance abusers & COAs
- Codependents who are also substance abusers & ACOAs
Recovery for the codependent, like recovery for the dependent, is not a do-it-yourself project. It requires professional guidance and the encouragement of other people who are having or have had the same experience. There is nothing remotely equal to the insight and support you can get from those who know exactly what you have gone through.
Someone once said that the five most important words in recovery are “I know how you feel.”
Having others listen to you—probably the first time this has happened to you in years, validates your feelings and erases your sense of being crazy or unique or at fault for everything.
Listening to others talk about your feelings takes away your sense of being totally alone and isolated.
Seeing other people tending to their own needs and doing something about their own problems helps you to understand that looking about their own problems helps you understand that looking after yourself is not selfish—it’s necessary, and in the long run it will also be better for the dependent in your life and others in your family.
Being around people who freely express their misgivings, their pain, and their successes gives you hope while making it easier for you to stop denying that your life has been hell.
Recovery for the whole family, like recovery for a dependent, begins with the breaking down of denial and the recognition of one’s own needs.
As long as the codependent is expected to play a role in the recovery of the dependent, without the reverse being expected as well, the “sicker than thou” attitude on the part of the dependent may be perpetuated. This, in turn, perpetuates the “other-centeredness” or lack of identity that is so much a part of the disease of codependence.
The codependent must realize that the issue should no longer be the dependent’s “cure” but the codependent’s survival.
The work of recovery for dependents has much in common with the work of recovering from dependence—but in general it’s easier and happens more rapidly (partly because the codependent doesn’t have to fight the battle of abstinence, withdrawal, and cravings).
How To Overcome CoDependency in the Addiction Treatment Process
— First, the codependent has to accept the label. —
This can be a great relief, because the label is like a diagnosis that explains all the crazy symptoms you’ve been having while at the same time carrying with it the possibility of recovery.
When codependents are given a name for what they are experiencing, they can distinguish it from being crazy or stupid or inadequate. Most codependents aren’t aware that they suffer from an illness that’s caused by the illness of their partner or parent.
They think that they’re just normal human beings like anybody else, and they simply don’t have the right stuff to deal efficiently with this family problem. They feel like failures because they couldn’t get their partner or parent to quit. The truth is, nobody can get somebody else to quit unless that person wants to, and the disease of codependence is not a symptom of weakness or poor character.
Accepting the label can open a new perspective on life, provide a new framework for understanding the past, and offer hope for a different future.
— Second, the codependent must admit the pain. —
It may be strange that someone who is suffering would persist in denying it, but people in dependent families do all sorts of unthinkable things in their inefficient efforts to achieve some normality—however false. Denying the pain is part of denying the problem. It is part of the general subduing of feelings and the role-playing and pretending that the codependent uses to ward off reality.
It is a milestone in recovery when a codependent can admit and exhibit feelings and discover the powerful truth that it’s okay to have feelings; you don’t have to hide or stifle them.
Such a moment is common in the environment of treatment, when someone comes into the room, another group member asks, “How are you,” and the answer is an honest “Lousy,” instead of “I’m fine, thanks.” Or when the answer is, “I’m so depressed I feel like I might cry any minute,” and the other member says, “Go ahead. Here, have some Kleenex.”
Many codependents become so confused they stop feeling at all, or if they can feel, they can’t distinguish between different kinds of feelings—is this anger or hurt or fear? Once you can have a feeling and identify it correctly—say, “This is fear!”—then you can figure out what to do with that emotion.
Your response and your behavior may be very different when you realize that what you thought was “anger” is really “hurt.”
— Third, the codependent must give up relying on willpower. —
Using willpower to survive intolerable situations gives the illusion of control over the situation—but it is only an illusion; in truth, everything is completely out of control. Willpower is useful for some things and totally useless for others.
An addict cannot use willpower alone to stop drinking or taking drugs, and you cannot use it to influence another person’s emotions or behavior.
—Fourth, codependents must relinquish their “sick” identities and stop playing their “sick” roles—martyr, missionary, victim, and so on.—
Having perfected this role, it’s frightening to be asked to give it up, especially if you haven’t yet figured out what’s going to take its place. It feels like no-person’s-land. Codependents often resist this as strongly as if they were giving up something truly valuable. It means taking responsibility for your behavior and for the restoration of your real self.
It means acting for yourself and your own best interests, not living for what you have mistakenly believed were the best interests of your impaired partner.
This sounds selfish.
But alcoholism and drug abuse are selfish diseases. And the only antidote for the subjugation of self that characterizes codependent behavior is to refocus on the self in healthy ways.
“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out”
– Robert Collier
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