Support Groups For Families And Friends

In the previous installment of this series on recovery programs, I discussed some of the reasons why family members, friends and even employers of folks addicted to drugs (including alcohol) may need to seek some support for themselves.  In this one, we'll talk about support groups.

These issues can all be lumped under the term “codependency.” However, the word has become so over-used, both inside and outside the recovery community, that many people tend to blow off discussions about it. That’s a shame, because addiction to alcohol and other drugs affects practically everyone in our society in one way or another. From time to time we all need to deal with an addict “up close and personal,” and most of us have no idea how to go about it. That lack of understanding can do considerable damage, to the addict and ourselves.

I’ve written about enabling several times on this blog, and you can find some of those articles here. The bottom line, however, is simply that “helping” an addict in any way that makes it easier for her to live her life while continuing her addiction is enabling the continuation of the addiction. We addicts are experts at using charm, lies, guilt and anger to influence the people around us. Unless those folks come to understand the way we operate, and the truly effective ways of helping us, they are only helping us down the road to jails, institutions and death.

Effective intervention with an addict or substance abuser, if indicated, requires the help of a professional as a sort of referee, and to assist us in making plans. However, the best guidance for families and others dealing with addicts often comes from other folks who have gone through the same process of learning about their own denial and how to work through it and other codependency issues.

How many times have you tried to open up with a friend, only to get a lot of unwanted advice from a person who clearly has no idea what you’re going through? Or, how many times have you wanted someone to talk to — someone who can understand — and not known where to find one. The support groups for families and friends are a safe source of understanding and useful information about subjects that are often family secrets, unspoken by anyone.

The first such support group was Al-Anon, founded by Lois Wilson and Anne Smith, wives of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. Now formally known as Al-Anon Family Groups, and made up of the original Ala-Anon plus Alateen (for kids of alcoholics), it is still the largest and widest-spread fellowship of its kind. Over the 50+ years of its existence, the collective wisdom of the fellowship in how to remain sane while loving a drunk has become enormous — and invaluable.

Other groups, no less important, that have sprouted off of Al-Anon include

  • Nar-Anon for those affected by people addicted to drugs other than alcohol
  • Gam-Anon for people close to compulsive gamblers
  • Codependents Anonymous (CODA), dedicated to developing healthy relationships of all kinds
  • COSA, a recovery program for men and women whose lives have been affected by someone else's compulsive sexual behavior
  • Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), for adults dealing with family of origin issues

and several dozen others. The list above is for purposes of illustration, and not to imply endorsement of any one program over another.

These groups, along with many others, are easily available by searching for “family+support+(your+issue+here)”. Example: family+support+sex+addict gives us a huge selection of support groups, resources, and even online meetings for people dealing with someone else’s sexual behavior.

By no means should we ignore online supports. Often we are unable to find an appropriate meeting, embarrassed to open up in front of others, or perhaps we are even ashamed to be seen entering one. There are literally hundreds of online support groups for every sort of addiction and families of addicts. Two minutes of searching can turn up the one we need to get started on the road to emotional help, and to the skills needed to deal with our addicted loved ones.  We ought always to keep in mind, however, that sometimes there is nothing like talking face to face, or a warm hug, from someone who truly understands.

Our first responsibility is to ourselves.  We need to find ourselves in order to live our own lives.  We can't help anyone until we face that truth and act on it.    We can make changes only in ourselves.  We may, or may not, be able to influence our addict, but we need to admit to ourselves that the problem is partially ours, let go of our useless attempts to control, and learn to detach with love.

For our own sakes, and theirs.

My thanks to Michele O. Webb CAP, ICADC for her assistance.


Are there groups like NA and AA for younger people?

We don’t know of any fellowships specifically for young people, although some may exist.  However, both AA and NA have groups that consist primarily of younger members. Generally their ages range from the mid-teens to mid-20’s, but it’s not unusual to find a few older members as well, and that’s a good thing.  People with substantial time in recovery provide the continuity that a group needs.

A check with the Intergroup office in your area will get you the information you need on when and where to find young people’s groups.  There are young people’s meetings, conventions, and a variety of other activities aimed at both newcomers and younger folks with some time under their belts, and they are a wonderful way to become engaged in activities within the fellowship.

We’ve always recommended that people go to a variety of meetings: open, closed, discussion, beginner’s, book meetings, young people’s, and so forth.  There’s no question that it is easier to relate to those who are closer to our age and at about the same point in recovery.  However, we need to remember that while we may feel more like they are our kind of people, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in a position to provide everything we need to work a program.

If we are uncomfortable with old-timers because we believe they’re judging our recovery, perhaps we need to get to know a few of them and get their actual opinions, instead of assuming that we can read their minds.  We may be surprised.  And they may have a lot to offer us, once we decide to talk to them.  After all, they’re the ones with the track record and experience.

It’s a good idea to mix up our program friends, concentrating not on their ages but instead on the quality of their recovery — but don’t skip the young people’s activities.  They’re the fastest track to healthy fun in recovery, and if you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.

It’s also worth mentioning that both AA and NA have “sister” organizations for young people with recovering parents, other family members, or friends.  Check out Nar-Anon Family Groups or Al-Anon Family Groups for more information.

Help or enable — what if the person is mentally ill?

A reader writes:

My adult son plays me like a fiddle, but I am confused as to where do I draw the line because he is mentally ill. I am so stressed about this that I can barely function and I am going broke and he isn't getting better. Can you provide any advice? Thanks.

Mental illness and addiction seem to go together.  Some people learn that they can self-medicate by using alcohol or other drugs, thereby moderating their symptoms.  Others may be less mentally-ill than simply suffering from messed-up brain chemistry due to the drugs.

In any case, the presence of chemicals always complicates treatment for other disorders. In fact, it's nearly impossible to treat mentally-ill people effectively if they are still using.  How, for example, is a physician to treat depression in a person who is addicted to alcohol or opiates, both of which cause depression?

Would that I had an easy answer, but there are none when it comes to addiction and other mental disorders.  So let's approach this problem from a different direction.  You write, “I am so stressed about this that I can barely function and I am going broke and he isn't getting better,” so let me ask you a question.  If you are going nuts and broke, how are you ever going to be able to help your son?  Would it not be better to get your own situation under control, keep your sanity and whatever resources you have left, and stop banging your head against the wall?

The fact is, your son is quite aware that he can “play you like a fiddle,” and he has no reason to try to get better.  It gets back to the simple fact that when you make his life easier, you remove any incentive to change.  You did not state what his mental problems may be, but one thing is sure.  You can't help him if you're losing your own ability to function.

So I suggest you start taking care of yourself.  Begin by attending some support groups — I suggest Al-Anon, and perhaps one for people dealing with mentally disabled dependents.  Your local mental health association should be able to direct you to some of the latter.  As for Al-Anon, there are meetings all over the world, and I strongly urge you to avail yourself of the understanding and companionship of people who know where you're coming from.  Only by dealing with your own confusion and coping problems will you reach a state where you are able to help your son when — and if — he decides to accept effective assistance.

In the meantime, I would suggest that you minimize any “helping” that in any way facilitates his drug use.  If he is unable to care for himself, then perhaps throwing him out is not the kind of tough love that would be helpful.  If, however, he is capable of fending for himself, even at a low level, let him know that he has a choice: give up the cushy life at your house and take over his own life, or go get some treatment.

In any case, you need to take care of yourself first.

Some Comments About Codependency

Codependency, originally called co-alcoholism, refers to a group of emotional difficulties commonly experienced by people who are involved with addicts: family, close friends, co-workers, and so forth.

Our Addicts Make Us Crazy

Addicts behave in crazy ways, and their behavior affects the people close to them.  As their codependents adjust their lives and attitudes to life with a person suffering from chemically-induced insanity, they begin to move away from normal behavior, in an attempt to keep life on something like an even keel.

To begin with, this may include things like calling the addict in sick when he or she is too impaired to make it in to work, or supplying drinks or drugs to keep the addict pacified.  Kids may make excuses for dad not being at their school activities, or their inability to invite friends home as guests because of mom's condition.  As the addict's functioning decreases, the spouse make take on more responsibilities, and may spend a great deal of time and energy trying to control the addict and keep him or her from using. Most of us have seen this sort of thing, and wondered why in the world people put up with living that way.

Family Secrets

The family is the basic unit of society, and family members are often loyal to a fault.  All of the family members adjust their attitudes and behavior to keep the family as stable as possible — to keep the family secrets — in the face of the worsening circumstances.  Older children may become companions and support for the non-using partner or, in the case of more than one addict, may have to care for smaller children — perhaps protect them from the behavior of the adults.

No one likes these changes away from a normal life, but all try their best to keep the house of cards from falling down because they do not understand that there are alternatives, or are afraid to explore them.  As the process continues, the rest of the family becomes as abnormal in certain respects as the addict(s), because of the forced deviation from normal relationships and childhood development.  Everyone becomes convinced that things can't go on this way, but everyone is stymied, and cannot see a way out — a classic double-bind, that is classically crazy-making.

Looked at this way, it is easy to see how families can come to need treatment as much as their addicts.  However, there is often a lot of denial on the part of codependents: “Hey, he's the crazy one.  I'm the one who keeps things together!”  Adult partners may become accustomed to calling the shots, and may resist giving up the authority when the addict gets into recovery.  Children will not trust the using adult, although they still feel the familial bond.  They will be terribly confused.  Unless these family members — especially the children — get some help dealing with the crazy thinking, emotional (and often physical) abuse, and other problems caused by being so close to an addict's behavior for so long, their difficulties adjusting to new relationships later in life are likely to be severe.

All of the above applies, to greater or lesser degree, to everyone who has to cope with an active addict.  We all adjust our behavior to accommodate the skewed antics of our addicts.  When the adjustments are too big, or last too long, we ourselves become sucked into the addict's world.  That is why we say that addiction is a family disease.  Just as alcoholics and other addicts will do whatever they need to in order to support their addiction, so do codependents change their lives and do whatever they have to do to adjust to life with the addict.  In a sense, they become addicted to their addicts.

Codependency is also common in family members and caretakers of people with disabilities, major grief issues, and other life-changing, chronic conditions.

What To Do?

There are a number of 12-Step groups, such as Nar-Anon, Al-Anon and AlaTeen, formed so that folks who have been through the madness of codependency can help those who are still “under the influence” get their lives together.  There are also treatment centers that offer specialized treatment for codependents.  Such measures are strongly recommended for folks with loved ones and friends in recovery, and will do a great deal to insure the survival of the family after treatment.