Family Guide: Why Does your Addiction Always Come First?

man and children of alcoholic boating family guide


“Early recovery” marks the beginning stage of sobriety in our family guide. Because, as the person in recovery adjusts to a sober lifestyle, their loved ones are learning to adjust as well. And loved ones can disregard their own adjustment period, because their focus has been on the addiction itself for so long. In reality, the entire family unit grows and changes in early recovery. 


Family Guide : But addiction is your issue, not mine!

In active addiction, family members may have focused heavily on the addicted individual’s behavior. They may have cared for this person, walked on eggshells and excused his or her behavior. This can create high levels of stress, broken trust and unreasonable rules and secret-keeping in the home.


Communication is often damaged or nonexistent in early recovery. And loved ones may be confused about how to show their support. 


By the time a loved one enters treatment, the family may feel they’ve reached a breaking point. But problems with communication, safety and trust will persist until they’re addressed with family guidelines… and this requires work on both ends. Relationships aren’t suddenly repaired and renewed upon graduation. Loved ones may have difficulty understanding this. And if they aren’t directly addressed, old interaction patterns will spill into early recovery. (That’s why it’s called a “pattern” – it’s instinctive and familiar.)


Family, guide married to addict


Family Guide: The hard part is over… treatment will fix the rest, right?

Just as recouping a physical injury requires a change in routine, early recovery presents a unique adjustment period. Sanford House considers addiction a family disease. For this reason, a client’s immediate family members are encouraged to engage in their treatment. As a marriage and family counselor, my family guide program provides loved ones with education and resources related to the disease. And in our Family Program, both the person in recovery and their family gain new skills about how to support a sober lifestyle.


As family members, we may have tried (and failed) to “cure” our child, parent, sibling of their addiction.


We may have supported, pulled-away, bailed out, convinced and done everything in our power to alleviate the pain and danger associated with active addiction. For this reason, it’s difficult to accept our role in the problem. It may be easier to turn our backs to the AL-ANON community in fear of blame, shame and guilt.   


“It’s your fault they continued to use!”

“You have a problem, too!”

“You’re an enabler!”


In the aftermath of an addiction, the healing process begins by recognizing its impact on others. How did addiction change the feeling of safety in my home? How did addiction prevent members from communicating effectively?


Family, guide married to an addict


Family Guide: I’ve spent years worrying about you… Can’t I relax now?

It isn’t reasonable to expect only one person (the person in treatment) to change… the entire environment needs to be examined. How are we treating each other? Why? What are my expectations? The person in recovery has spent days or weeks working on their mental wellness and learning about the disease of addiction. But, the family has not. Everyone may be in a different emotional place upon homecoming. 


Dad may have graduated treatment, but Mom still feels angry about how she has been treated… Son feels afraid to spend time alone with Dad… Daughter is confused about what she should and should not say… significant other is tiptoeing around the “problem”… In order for any communication to take place, each member needs to address where they stand.


Family, guide addiction in the childhood home


Family Guide: How can I make sure you don’t relapse?

When we attempt to control the addictive behaviors of a loved one, we lose control over our own behavior. This can make life feel chaotic and unmanageable. To regain balance and control over the relationship and their own lives, it can benefit loved ones to learn about common responses to the disease.


When you try to control what you are powerless over, you lose control over what you can manage.


The term “co-addiction” refers to a relationship pattern that can develop between an individual and a person with an addiction. In this style of relating, the non-addicted individual feels the need to control, appease, or worry excessively about the addict’s needs. (See also: codependency). And these symptoms evolve into physical, psychological, or social behaviors used to adapt, cope, or compensate for the stress of living with someone with an addiction. As co-addiction progresses, these behaviors become habitual.


Family, guide to parenting because children are involved


Do you feel as though addiction is negatively impacting your family? Check out the three stages of co-addiction according to Gorski and Miller of Staying Sober: A Guide for Relapse Prevention, and contact Sanford House with questions you may have.  


Family Guide: Stages of Co-Addiction

1. Early stage (Normal attempts to adjust):

The loved one embarks on a series of problem solving efforts to ease the pain of the addicted individual and protect the family. These efforts ineffective and prevent the addicted individual from encountering natural consequences that bring awareness to the addiction.

2. Middle stage (Habitual self-defeating responses):

At this point, the loved one’s efforts are not making an impact on the addicted person’s behavior. In crisis and desperation, the loved one fights harder. Efforts feel reactionary and repetitive. The loved one may take on the responsibilities of the addicted person, blame themselves for his or her behavior, and become anxious and frustrated. Loved ones can identify the role of the addiction in the family, and it’s impact on the family’s ability to function.

3. Chronic stage (Collapse and stress degeneration):

Efforts become circular, repetitive, and self-defeating. The family focuses heavily on the addiction and its impact on the family’s ability to function. For this reason, members have difficulty maintaining relationships or meeting responsibilities. Elevated levels of stress create physical illness like headache, ulcer, and hypertension. Loved ones may also experience instability in their mental or emotional health.




And a Fresh Look at Family Guide-lines…

The key is education. When the family understands the peculiarities of the disease, and their role in the family system, they are better equipped to welcome home their loved one from addiction treatment. There is a fresh look at how the entire family operates. At Sanford House we want to work with the whole family.  We view the family as an essential component in ongoing recovery from addiction and substance use. Our family guide educates entire families about the disease of addiction. And in so doing, we help our clients and their loved ones reshape their roles and move forward in recovery, together.


Sanford House Addiction Treatment Centers


Author Lynnel Brewster (RN,MA, NCC, LPC, ADS, LLMFT) brings a compassionate, holistic perspective to her work. With more than 20 years combined nursing and counseling experience, she is has had plenty f time to develop her style. Lynnel is a Registered Nurse as well as an Acupuncture Detoxification Specialist. Her diverse background includes cross-cultural experiences in Indonesia and Africa. Lynnel spends her free time with her family (especially her grandchildren...) and loves to hike and read. As Clinical Director of Sanford Addiction Treatment Centers, she loves her job helping individuals rediscover themselves in recovery.