It’s a tough subject to broach, but when it comes to addiction – whether alcohol, substance or behaviour – knowing what to do and say to support your loved one (and yourself) during recovery can be tricky.
Clinical Counsellor and Addiction Therapist Candace Plattor talks with ANZMH Association about understanding challenges, building trust and the importance of therapy for everybody involved in the recovery journey.
Q: What are the most important things for people to understand about an addict in recovery?
A: There are several things for people to understand. One is that addicts who are shifting from active addiction into active recovery generally feel terrified to give up their addictive behaviours. Many have been using mind-altering substances and/or mood-altering behaviours for a long time to not have to feel their difficult feelings – without those, they know they will be experiencing emotions that they’ve tried so hard to stay away from.
Addicts in recovery also don’t like the idea of uncertainty. When they were ‘using’ they at least had a semblance of control over their lives – now they don’t know what to expect, which is very difficult for them.
Also, loved ones of addicts in recovery need to be aware of any enabling they may still be doing. If addicts are enabled, even those in recovery, the risk of relapse increases. We need to continue to support the addicts we love who are in recovery in many of the same ways we learned to do when we were helping them to choose to come out of active addiction.
Q: What are the main challenges that addicts face?
A: As stated above, one of the main challenges is that if they stop using their addiction, they begin to feel the difficult emotions that they were able to hide from while in active addiction.
But all addicts who are still in active addiction eventually come to a place where they know, deep inside, that something is very wrong with the picture of their lives. Most of them aren’t able to hold down a job, they experience great difficulties in their family or romantic relationships, some are homeless and/or have criminal records due to their need to support their addiction. Basically, their lives are a mess – and most of them are very aware of that, even when they are under the influence of the addiction. So their all-important self-respect is negligible, and they know that if they continue their addiction, all of these problems will continue too.
As well, some of those who are addicted to street drugs know that they could very well be putting their lives at risk every time they use – because there is no way to know if their drugs are being cut with deadly substances like fentanyl. Many have already lost friendships they’ve made with their fellow addicts, and they face their own reality that each day could be their last.
Another challenge is that in many places in the world, government funding has been substantially cut for addiction recovery programs. This generally means that there are long wait lists for services, or else addicts and their families need to spend an exorbitant amount of money on pricey rehab centres. This can often be a catch-22 situation, because when an addicted person receives help but the family doesn’t, the addict could make really wonderful shifts – but when they return to the same dysfunctional family system, they run a higher risk of relapse – and then the family is bewildered after paying so much money for their loved one’s treatment.
This is why as an Addiction Therapist I specialise in working with the whole family unit, including the addicted person when they’re ready, because that’s really the only way that brings about the permanent transformation that people are hoping for.
Q: How do you build trust with your patients?
A: Building trust is a slow, ongoing process with clients. Many have lived lives around people who are not trustworthy – and they themselves have not acted in trustworthy ways. I believe that trust in another person – just like respect for another person – is earned over time.
Many of my clients feel an inherent trust with me because I self-disclose that I am an addict in recovery (I have over 30 years clean and sober). Even though there may be details of our lives that are different, I can relate to their feelings in nearly all cases and they seem to understand that.
As an Addiction Therapist, I also encourage my clients to let me know if there is ever anything I say or do that is upsetting to them – telling them that I’d rather hear about that than not hear about it – and taking the opportunity to work it through in a healthy way. I believe that without that invitation to be honest with me, clients may prefer not to return for sessions and often then make the decision to mistrust ‘all’ therapists.
Q: Why is treatment or counselling so important for those supporting an addict?
A: Most people who love an addict don’t have a clue about what to do in that situation – and many are directly affected by the person’s addiction, so they are consumed with thoughts about it. They think about it at home, at work, at 3 o’clock in the morning when they often can’t sleep. They basically become obsessed – or as I like to say, they are addicted to their addict’s addiction.
The behavioural addiction of co-dependency – when people put others’ needs ahead of their own on a fairly consistent basis – needs treatment too. In these situations, everyone is affected and everyone needs to heal in order for the addict to also become healthier and more functional.
Enabling is the most prevalent behaviour amongst loved ones of addicts – and it is this cluster of activities that most needs to change. Enabling is not the same as helping – although until family members and other supporters of people with addiction understand the difference, they generally continue to enable. My simple definition of these two terms is that enabling behaviours keep the addiction going, while helping behaviours assist the addiction to stop.
Enabling can consist of many different actions. These can include giving an addict money; allowing the addict to live in the family home while behaving in disrespectful and detrimental ways – such as raging, punching holes in walls, yelling, shoving and hitting; sleeping all day and partying all night; using illegal substances in the family home without concern for the others who live there; not contributing to the household in any positive ways.
When we stop the enabling, we can stop the addiction. At the very least – even if the addicts themselves decide to continue their addiction – loved ones can begin to get a good night’s sleep, find focus in their jobs again, practice holistic self-care, and even go on holiday trips without feeling the guilt and shame they had been carrying around with them, often for many years. They begin to live their own best lives despite what the addict is doing, with the understanding that they can’t change anyone but themselves. And sometimes, when that happens, the addicts decide that they too want this kind of healthier lives for themselves and start to do their own recovery work in earnest.
Q: How do you involve families of a patient during treatment?
A: Because I believe so strongly that families need to play their important part in the addict’s treatment, I no longer work with addicts whose families are not willing to be part of the recovery process. Sometimes I start working with just the loved ones if the addicts are still in resistance. By teaching them how to set healthy, appropriate, self-respecting boundaries with the addicts they so dearly love, the addicts generally become more inclined to work with me a lot more quickly.
I basically teach loved ones how to get their addicts to be ready for me, and then everyone involved is on the road to a better life. The profound transformation they desire so deeply actually happens in these families, and this can last a lifetime if they continue to make the decision to help rather than to enable.
Candace Plattor, M.A., R.C.C., is an Addiction Therapist in private practice. Candace specialises in working with the family and other loved ones of people who are struggling with addiction, in her unique and signature Family Addiction Therapy Program. Candace believes that everyone in the family is affected by addiction and everyone needs to heal. For more than 25 years, she has been helping both addicts and their loved ones understand their dysfunctional behaviours and make healthier life choices. You can visit her website and sign up to receive Chapter 1 of her book, Loving an Addict, Loving Yourself: The Top 10 Survival Tips for Loving Someone with an Addiction, and “Like” her Facebook page.
If addiction is causing pain and suffering in your family, and you’re ready to do what it takes to reclaim your sanity and serenity so you can live your best life, click here for a free 60-minute consultation.