Substance Use and the Family: Intoxicant Emotions
Drugs and alcohol are “intoxicants,” consumed to have fun, relieve stress, feel better. When sufficient amounts are consumed, eventually one becomes intoxicated – high or drunk. Family members are directly affected at many levels by the increased problems caused by substance use. The behavior of the substance user causes the family to experience negative emotions.
- The family becomes obsessed with the behavior, attitude, and situation caused by use of substances.
- Eventually, family members begin to experience emotions that leave them “intoxicated” similar to the use of substances. These feelings and experiences over time become “Intoxicant Emotions.”
- Intoxicating emotions include fear, shame, guilt, resentment, self-pity, worry, and anger. These emotions “intoxicate” a person in that they change the way they feel when he or she indulges in the emotions.
- An “intoxicant emotion” (IE) (CompCare Publishers) such as fear and shame cause family members to hide, be secretive, feel depressed, or unable to sleep.
The feeling is similar to the feeling a substance user experiences using or coming off his/her drug of choice. Intoxicant emotions may energize or slow one down limiting the ability to function at an optimum level. Sometimes these emotional states are as unpredictable as emotions that affect the substance user upon picking up a drink or drug. The emotions distract from the life experiences of living with substance use, much like the effects of getting high.
Family members follow the same downward spiral as an alcoholic or addict. There are 4 stages of family illness before the family either “bottoms out” or enters recovery.
- The first stage is the Concern Stage. This is the stage where family members are assisting the substance user, with genuine concern. Family members are beginning to negatively experience the effects of alcohol and drug use by a loved one. At this stage the family typically is not aware of the situation they are facing.
- The second phase is the Defense Stage, after the “first blockout.” During the first “blockout” family members block out the reality and severity of the situation. The family truly believes that they can handle the substance use and its effects on them. Substance users often experience “blackouts”, a period of time when they have no memory of events. Blackouts are caused by serious impairment or by a period of coming off heavy alcohol or drug use. The effect of “blockouts” by family and significant others is similar to a blackout caused by alcohol or drug use.
- During the Defense State, families are preoccupied with the substance user’s behavior. They protect the behavior by lying to other family members, employers, or to others about the behavior. While reluctantly tolerating the user’s behavior, they believe themselves to be increasingly responsible for the family’s problems.
- The result of accepting this responsibility is more frequent and increasingly severe “blockouts.” Family members don’t remember all the negative behavior of the user and tend to minimize the consequences. They block out the seriousness of the substance use and its effects on them. Family members want to believe that the substance user is being truthful that he or she has it under control and will, or has, quit using. Families believe everything will work itself out.
- After repeated “blockouts” comes the Adaptation Phase. During this phase, family members begin to change their behavior to adapt to the substance user’s behavior. This is a critical phase that may cause family members to either become obsessed with the chemically dependent person. They face increasingly serious problems and could begin to drink or use drugs, too. The family has accepted that problem is the way it is; they have begun to adjust to it.
- Family members may attempt to become “the perfect person” hoping that will make the addict/alcoholic happy and change his/her ways. It is at this time that family members begin to feel they are losing control, or worse, losing their minds. Family members become absent minded, feel like failures, and need medical or mental health care. They give so much to others that they have nothing left to take care of themselves. The family has become so focused on the substance user that they have forgotten how to take care of themselves and others. Substance use it the focus of the family now, at the expense of all else.
- Next comes the Exhaustion Phase, when family members defend their use of intoxicant emotions, just like the substance user defends his use of drugs or alcohol. The emotions are justified by their hope that they are doing the best for the person consuming alcohol and/or drugs. As a result, family members lose their self-worth and experience severe anxiety or depression. All excuses fail. Fear, shame and guilt rule their lives. Hopefully, they have reached their bottom.
Family members may choose to admit they, too, have a problem. They need recovery or they will face increasingly difficult situations, failing mental and physical health and financial difficulties. This condition cannot continue on its current path. When substance use becomes severe and compulsive, the user cannot stop one his or her own. Sufficient treatment is necessary to stop the progression of the condition.
When family members reach this point, seeking and accepting assistance to deal with the situation is always necessary. There are multiple options for families who are willing to accept help. Seek a family counselor at a substance abuse treatment center. Find a therapist who specialized in substance abuse and family counseling. Locate Al-Anon and Nar-Anon programs in your area. As family and friends commit to making significant changes in themselves, the substance user has to adjust. If both the established family dynamic continues unabated, the condition will continue to spiral out of control.
It is certain that longer alcohol and drug users abuse drugs or alcohol, the worse problems become. Until the substance user commits to change through recovery and/or therapy, the downward spiral continues. Commitment to recovery requires substance use treatment with commitment over an extended period of time. Simply attending meetings, counseling, or groups in itself does not confirm one is committed to recovery. Participation, sharing and opening up are required.
- How long does it take? That varies among individuals. It usually takes several weeks to just become stable, several months to begin dealing with the issues that contribute to substance use. It takes a few years of committed recovery to become the best one can be. Sometimes, it is the family that has to take the first step to recovery. A few days, or even a few weeks, of treatment is not sufficient to change the behavior of a person with a substance abuse disorder, nor is it sufficient to heal the family. All this can be accomplished, though, with commitment and continued effort over time.
- Does the substance user have to wait until he or she wants recovery? No. Many years of research prove that clients mandated to attend treatment by legal situations, jobs, schools, families and other external motivation have better outcomes than those who seem to initially seem to want recovery.
- Mandated clients tend to follow professional recommendations, stick to the treatment plan, pass clean drug screens and often have better long-term outcomes than voluntary clients.
- During this time of treatment and recovery for the substance user, the more involved the family is with recovery for themselves, the better the chances the substance user will do the same. Don’t give up, family member. Commit to a program of family recovery and stick with it, even if you’re the only one. Positive results are guaranteed if you follow through with your commitment with sufficient duration and intensity.
- Length of treatment is as important to successful long term success as is intensity. A substance abuse intensive outpatient treatment program for 3-6 months might seem like a very long time. Taking into consideration the length of time a person and the amount has been using alcohol or drugs, 3 months might be very brief in comparison.
- In 3-6 months, a person in recovery will experience many challenges and changes. Remaining in treatment and aftercare will provide ongoing support during these changes and challenges. Don’t stop treatment before the miracle happens!
(Portions of this article are adapted from the poster “Affected Family Syndrome” by CompCare Publishers)
“At first like most people I wasn’t really crazy about going to group. As time went on all of that began to change. I started seeing the difference that the treatment was making in my life. I also saw that my family was beginning to be a lot happier than I’ve seen in a while. I realized that being sober has been the best thing that has happened to me; physically, mentally, and emotionally. I thank God and First Step for my second chance that they made possible for me to see, also the positive that came out of a bad situation. Thank you.” Anonymous