What Do I Do Now that my Loved One is in Treatment?
After your loved one has started treatment for substance use disorder, families often experience both confusion and hope. You may have no idea how you have unwittingly contributed to the problem, or whether you’re part of the problem at all. You and your family are all engaged in an intricate social dance, and everyone is doing whatever they can to maintain balance in the family. Here are some steps a trauma-informed family therapist can help you with while your loved one is in treatment to help heal the family system.
Identify the problem.
Everyone in a family system has their own set of steps they take to maintain balance in the entire system. It’s important to identify these steps so we can have a better idea of the dance that you’re all engaged in. Think of them as buttons on an old-fashioned cashier machine. Mom knows exactly which buttons to push on Dad to get a reaction, and the brother knows which buttons to push on his sister to make her react. The biggest step your family can take is identifying these buttons, not only on the person who is in treatment, but also on yourself and the other members of your family.
Understand your reactions.
We want to relieve the sense of shame or guilt you might feel about the situation your family is in. We can do that by helping you to understand that these steps you’ve all taken were not chosen out of ill will or mal intent, but rather as adaptive tools. None of you meant to hurt one another. You’re having normal reactions to abnormal events. You’ve done the best you can with what you have in front of you.
Examine your motivations.
Once you’ve been relieved of the guilt, shame or remorse you and your family might have been feeling, you can see the situation with a fresh perspective. You can begin to weigh the pros and cons of the actions you’ve been taking. Ask yourself, “What do I get out of this? And what is it costing me?” If we can simplify it to that kind of question, you and your family can start making changes for the better.
Understand your loved one.
When a family enters therapy while their loved one is in treatment, one thing we like to do is draw two charts. The first chart shows how the loved one has been doing. How have they been behaving? The family will talk about how they’ve been lazy, they’ve been lying, they’ve been stealing, they don’t eat right, they don’t sleep right, they’ve been having mood swings, they’re isolating, they’re disrespectful, and they’re angry. We write all those responses down, and then we look at it from the other person’s point of view. On a daily basis, what’s happening to their body? Their heart, their lungs, their liver, their nervous system?
This person is under constant significant stress. There’s nothing that makes a person live against their values more than existing in an addictive cycle. They will violate every value they’ve ever had in order to keep the addiction going. A person living like this is kind of like revving a car engine and running it in neutral for months at a time. When you finally put it in park it may look okay on the outside, but that engine is really damaged.
Take care of yourself.
Then in the second chart, we ask you and your family to show how you’ve been doing. What kind of behaviors have you been engaged in? If your neighbor or coworker asks about your loved one who’s in treatment, what do you tell them? Are you engaging in some dishonesty as well? Are you isolating from family members? How are you behaving at work or at school? How’s your productivity? Are you getting enough sleep and eating right? Are you having mood swings? It doesn’t take long before someone notices that the two charts look almost identical. The question we ask then is, “Who’s helping you?” Your loved one is getting help, they’re being well taken care of in treatment, but who’s treating you? You and your family need help as well, and we can provide that help.
Examine the underlying trauma.
No parent holds their child for the first time and thinks, “I can’t wait for the day I have to search your room behind your back.” Any parent who’s had to search their child’s room or their texts can attest to the uncomfortably criminal feeling it brings about. When you have a number of these events that build up, it can be traumatic. It goes against your nurturing and caring instincts as a mother or as a father. We call those “little traumas,” and enough of them built up will definitely affect the way you interact with your child from that point forward.
So your loved one goes to treatment, and that’s great. You might even expect that everything will automatically be fine and go back to normal when they return. But that isn’t going to happen. What most people don’t realize is that you and your whole family system can have trauma built up, whether it be one huge traumatic experiences or many little traumas. A single word can trigger this trauma and bring the whole family back to square one, and back into the addictive cycle. Identifying these traumatizing events and the triggers associated with them is a very important part of the recovery process.