What If It’s Not About Fentanyl or Heroin?  What If It’s About the Family?


Whenever someone is released from an inpatient substance abuse treatment facility or a mental health inpatient facility the most dangerous part for the patient is NOT relapsing on alcohol or pain killers, or in the case of the person leaving the mental health facility, having suicidal thoughts. The most dangerous part of leaving these places is when the person returns home into the environment where these things developed over a very long period of time.

Every client I work with who suffers from Dual Diagnosis issues, which means anxiety, depression and substance abuse, finds the most difficult part of beginning a recovery program is attempting to live in their original family system. Whether the client is returning to parents and siblings or they are entering into an environment of spouse and children, there is a set up already in place for the client to struggle and fail. This is especially true with Opiate Addiction.

I currently work with the family of each addict/alcoholic separately and ultimately altogether in order to heal the entire family. There is Never a time when blame is allowed, never. Yet, that has been happening in the family unit since the earliest days of the marriage and most definitely once children are born and stresses rise. Each family who enters my office comes with certain expectations of what I can do for them and their family member who is struggling with addiction and mental health issues.

The same types of parents show up in front of me with anger and fear of what will become of their son or husband and sometimes it’s the daughter or wife, it is however, less often the case that it is a female.

It is statistically shown that males are more susceptible to addiction than females or at least overdose and commit suicide more often. These parents or spouses ask what they can do to help the person they love who has been slipping away from them into the hell of addiction.

The parents sit in front of me with the father looking angry with his arms crossed on his chest ready to refute anything I have to offer while the mother is always crying feeling exhausted and hopeless, yet ready to do one more thing to help.

The answer is not to try to help and understand the ‘identified patient’. The one who often shows up in the family as the outsider, ultra sensitive, creative sibling who can be counted on to be the one who has always struggled is the addict. Addiction is about anxiety and self-loathing. It is not about lack of will power or being a bad person.

The answer is looking at how the family works as a system and who is the one without understanding or compassion. Which member of the family is the one NOT talking? Who is and always has been unyielding. Without blame, we look back in to how each member of the family stepped in to the roles they currently hold.

When working with spouses we go back to how they were raised to see why they got married in the first place. Blaming a person or the entire family of in-laws gets us no where in the investigation on how to put the puzzle pieces into place of what each generation has passed down to the next on coping with fear and anxiety.

The most important part of someone coming home from treatment is finding out if the environment they are returning to is safe. That is where we find most addicts, alcoholics and patients suffering from depression will relapse. There are only expectations from everyone that the other person now knows how to do life. Parents and siblings watch every move the recovering addict makes and comments on them incessantly. This is the set up for failure.

When the parents and spouses ask me what they can do to HELP the person returning home to their family I can give the only answer possible, “Get your own help”. This is not about that one person. It is how the family deals with stress, making mistakes, expectations, unhealthy alliances and so on.

Some addicts relapse after being home for just a short time and we can see why. Nothing has changed at home. That is where the danger lies. Everyone in the family plays a part I each other’s lives. We can’t take the credit for the hero child who excels in athletics or academics while blaming the people around the addict for what they are going through. It’s not about that at all.

I work with adolescents from about 16 through 26. I see my guys checking out the summer between tenth and eleventh grade. It is NOT about the kids they are hanging around. Those kids feel the same way about themselves that your child feels about themselves. Again, addiction is about anxiety and self-hate. It always has been.

So how far back do we have to go to see where there has been addiction and mental illness in the family? Probably not far. Look for who is or was holding the anxiety of the family. Look for the one who is inflexible, intolerant and silent. Those are the most common couples that I work with.

The children either buy into the pressures of the expectations or they say ‘fuck it’. That is what the addict says every time they cannot become different enough for acceptance into the environment they always want to go back to, even if it is sick and bad for them.

It takes the entire family to be in treatment and begin seeing their part in things in order for this ‘heroin epidemic’ to subside. We are fueling it as enablers and haters.

Let’s talk about it, without blame.

Debra Whittam is the author of “I'm I Going to be Ok?" For any media inquiries or questions please contact: Contact@DebraWhittam.com

#addiction #recovery #treatment #addictsrelapse

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