This week, I am beginning a three-part series about dealing with and treating substance abuse addiction. I will share with you an interview I did a few years ago with a veteran professor and therapist in the field of chemical dependency, and a former managing director of a chemical dependency treatment center located in Pennsylvania.
SUSAN BRITT: Aside from the physical evidence, such as alcohol bottles, drug paraphernalia and any obvious symptoms like slurred speech, what are some of the signs of chemical addiction? ADDICTION THERAPIST: Some major symptoms and signs are physical and emotional unavailability to others. In adolescents, it might be cutting school, secretiveness, new and unknown friends, becoming increasingly separate from the family. Some of this is normal in the teen years, but continual antisocial behavior and emotional isolation from the family is not.
In an adult there might be a pattern of missing meals, missing family occasions and childrens’ functions and activities, perhaps even absence from work.
Addicted people are often unreliable about time commitments and meeting their responsibilities. Their moods are unpredictable. We all have our good days and bad days but with addiction, unreliability and unpredictability are typical.
Often, addicted people have a history of things gone wrong in their lives: in the home, on the job, with relationships. They really don’t connect with their families. They are off by themselves drinking the beer or cocktail they are “entitled to” because they had a bad day, because it is raining or snowing, because life is giving them a hard time, because it is a holiday, etc. They are extremely negative, “awful-izing” about everything. If told “what a beautiful day it is today” they may respond, “Yeah, but it’s gonna rain tomorrow.” They are argumentative and uncommunicative. If they do talk, it is to criticize or blame. Yet, on another day, they can be calm, friendly and nice to everyone.
SB: How do these behaviors and symptoms affect the family?
AT: They feel insecure, tense and isolated. Unfortunately, family members feel that it is their fault because they have been told over and over by the addicted person that it is. They have come to believe that the addicted person would OK “if only I had dinner ready on time,” or “if only I were a better kid.” They then try to change those things but since the addiction and the addicted person’s behavior is the major source of the family’s problems, it is beyond their control. They keep hoping things will get better but they don’t. They get worse.
SB: So what can the spouse or family do?
AT: They can confront the addicted family member, telling him or her that they believe their addiction is causing problems in the family, or the relationship, and that they want them to get counseling and treatment.
Unfortunately, the addicted person almost never agrees because he doesn’t feel the pain or suffer the consequences of his behavior. The people around him feel the pain and suffer the consequences, and let him get away with it. They enable him – this is co-dependency.
What the co-dependent spouse or family can do is to get counseling to change their own behavior. They can learn to refuse to enable the addicted person. They can refuse to “call in sick” to his job for him or make excuses for him or do anything else that helps him deny his addiction. This does two things: It relieves their stress because they are off the “if only I ...” hook, and it forces the addict to be accountable for his actions. And that can be a beginning.
Next week: Intervention, rehabilitation, aftercare.
Based in Rockport, life and relationship coach Susan Britt, M.Ed., a psychotherapist and former university director of career and counseling services, teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, clarify and achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments my be addressed to her at email@example.com or by telephone 978-546-9431.