If your daughter has recently entered a substance abuse treatment program for problems with substance abuse or addiction, you’re likely hoping that treatment will “fix” you teen once and for all. After all, treatment is expensive, the program you’ve selected is presumably staffed by high-caliber professionals who know what they’re doing, and—since addiction is a treatable disease—what are you paying for if not a cure.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it does not take into account the systemic nature of substance abuse and addiction. At the root of most substance abuse and addiction is some combination of environmental, familial and genetic factors. So while substance abuse and addiction are treatable disorders, treatment in this case does not mean a discreet procedure or treatment, but an continuous, systemic, and multi-phased process. It’s tough for many parents to bear the thought that treatment represents the beginning, not the completion, of healing for their child. But the good news is that this process can lead to a lifetime of positive growth not only for your child, but for your whole family. Understanding and accepting the full scope of this process in advance can help you engage it in ways that will accelerate healing and growth.
It can be daunting to realize that substance-abuse treatment is a lifelong process; daunting, that is, until you realize that all arenas of personal growth require ongoing attention. Fitness, healthy eating, positive relationships, career development and all other important aspects of life require long-term commitment if we are to have the lives we want. Viewed this way, recovery is just another opportunity to invest in lifelong personal growth.
For a young person dealing with a full-blown addiction, genetic and other physiological dimensions of the disease may require lifelong support and management in the form of groups, counseling, peer support and lifestyle choices. These activities and affiliations form the basis of a proactive support program that can help the recovering addict manage triggers and prevent—or recover from—relapse.
The emotional and learned aspects of substance abuse and addiction also require ongoing, proactive attention, but of a sort that perhaps more closely resembles anyone’s healthy process of lifelong personal growth. This attention might take the form of a fitness program, activities—such as yoga or music classes or therapy—that foster self awareness, involvement in a spiritual community and/or therapy to help develop deeper ways of relating to oneself and others. Viewed in positive terms, much of what an addict relies on for survival are things we could all benefit from—the stakes just happen to be higher.
Not unlike any other emotional or behavioral disturbances, substance abuse is always a family affair. Whether or not the family is itself an addictive system, it is bound to be deeply impacted by the behaviors of a substance abusing member. Family members learn to adapt unconsciously to the dysfunction of substance abuse in ways that may be protective while the behavior is present, but that tend to interfere with the healing process once it has begun. So when the young person finally engages her own process of change and growth, it’s critical that the whole family engage in a parallel and simultaneous process of growth and adaptation.
With the right support, old coping patterns of relating to each other—sibling to sibling, parent to child, parent to parent—can gradually be replaced with new patterns that foster closeness, appropriate boundaries and support for the recovery of the substance-abusing family member. While many parents wonder at first why they’re being asked to engage in the process when it’s their child who has the problem, they typically discover that this systemic approach to substance abuse treatment is life saving for their child and life changing for the whole family.
As a parent, you’ve already experienced a few phases related to your child’s substance abuse and recovery. First, you most likely experienced a period of contented denial that was rudely interrupted by negative behaviors that became, finally, too frightening or disruptive to ignore. The next phase was the painful acknowledgement of the severity of your child’s problem and, finally, seeking outside help. Each phase has been disruptive and challenging in its own right, but each phase has also brought your child closer to the healing she needs in order to have a healthy future.
There will be more phases to come in this process, both for you and your child. By knowing this in advance, you can be better equipped to lean into, rather than brace against, each new phase. During the process of treatment you and your child will likely be challenged to push into and through layers of painful history and numbing self-protection in order to find new levels of healing. And then, after so much work and just as things begin to feel stable and healed and hopeful, you’ll realize with some trepidation that your child is ready to come back home.
The return home represents yet another major phase in the treatment process. It can be reassuring to know that it’s normal to experience this victorious step in treatment as both exciting and terrifying. It represents yet another opportunity to take a giant step in the direction of healing, but it also carries with it at least some of the intensity of previous phases of treatment. Fortunately, many programs offer transition programs to help teens and their families anticipate, plan for and navigate this “after care” or “transitional” stage of the recovery process. Be assured that each new transition in life—college, wedding, career shifts—will represent another potential challenge to sobriety, but also an ever deeper opportunity for growth and recovery.