Note: This content originally appeared on Mind Matters from Menninger, our Psychology Today blog.
As we discussed in Part 1 of this series, the stressors that a family faces when a substance use disorder (SUD) is introduced into the family system are significant and can carry a high risk of loss.
The presence of an SUD causes strain on families and can result in the development, or worsening, of mental health concerns in family members who are not using substances. Because of this, it is important for anyone who has a loved one who struggles with a SUD to find support. Here are some tips:
- Gain knowledge. Having thorough, accurate information is vital in knowing how to move forward for yourself and your loved one. Be sure that the information you are seeking comes from reliable sources and is backed by scientific research. You may want to acquire information about types of substances and their effects, the potential course of a SUD, types of treatment and SUD support resources available to the family.
- Evaluate your own bias. Many times, family members attempt to keep a loved one’s SUD secret. This can often prevent families from seeking out necessary help and delay needed interventions. Family members may have their own preconceived ideas about SUDs or at times think they are “stigmatized by association.” Be honest with yourself about what you believe about the stigma of SUDs and seek out resources that can help guide you in questioning your own assumptions. On a more personal level, sharing about the presence of a SUD in your family can prevent a buildup of internal shame and also help you get the support and interventions needed.
- Seek support on your own. Family members of those struggling with a SUD almost inevitably experience increased stress and strain, physically, mentally or both. Making sure that you are getting all the support you need can help minimize the toll. Seeking help can look any number of ways, whether that be finding compassionate confidants, seeking out peer support meetings or seeking out professional help with an experienced mental health provider. Perhaps one or all of these forms of support could be needed depending on your situation. Many networks exist to offer peer support, and several groups may be found through local non-profit organizations or treatment centers, local religious organizations and Al-Anon groups. A quick search on Psychology Today can help you find treatment providers in addition to asking other medical professionals for recommended referrals.
- Get support as a family. Remember, having a person with a SUD in the family is not an individualized concern. Seeking support as a family allows for clear communication around painful topics and can create a necessary environment of support for all family members. Family therapy is often overlooked in SUD treatment and utilizing family support can often be a vital part of recovery and establishing healthy boundaries. Not only this, but family treatment can help ameliorate the strain families face when coping with a SUD and assist the family in capitalizing on their strengths.
- Don’t be the therapist. Family members who want to help can become overly involved in the recovery process to the point of feeling responsible for managing a SUD. Don’t feel compelled to be the primary agent of change in someone else’s journey. This creates even more stressors within a family system. You may provide emotional attunement, support, strength, hope and empowerment to a family member as needed. But you may not be the best person to offer accountability in recovery, as this can create further emotional and practical complications. Finding healthy boundaries can take some trial and error and might require professional feedback.
- Allow yourself to grieve. “Living bereavement,” “ambiguous grief” and “unconventional grief” are all terms that describe the ongoing process of grieving a loved one who is still alive. SUDs can radically change relationships, if not destroy them. You may feel that a SUD has robbed you of someone you love or has taken their mind and their personality. Grieving the living is usually accompanied by uncertainty, unsure outcomes and an indefinite length of time, which prolongs suffering. Allowing yourself to acknowledge the grief and your honest emotions that accompany the progression of a SUD is very important. Remember, grief is not just “one” feeling; it can be a complicated combination of many shifting feelings, including anger, despair, disbelief, longing, sadness and shock, among others.
- Seek out positive coping skills. The stress of coping with a family member’s SUD and the ensuing family strain often causes people to revert to using their own maladaptive coping methods. Finding ways to take care of yourself and cope positively is critical during difficult family times. For example, engaging in creative tasks, finding humor in everyday life, talking with a close friend, going for a walk in the sun and practicing mindfulness and gratitude are some activities that can increase your resilience in painful circumstances.
Having a loved one with a substance use disorder means that you are likely to feel a wide range of shifting and complex emotions. It is common to feel a wide array of emotions when facing a family SUD: isolation, anger, grief, powerlessness. Don’t forget that you, too, are likely to need support and a space to navigate your own struggles that emerge – and there are ways for you to seek out the help you need. As a family member of someone with a SUD, protecting your mental health is a critical and necessary part of keeping the family “engine” running.