Addiction is a Family Disease and Recovery is a Family Process

In the midst of an opiate epidemic, I feel a sincere obligation as a leader in the field to offer solutions that might improve outcomes and save lives.  Addiction is a very complex illness and there is no simple solution. As a parent myself, I am even more inspired to offer solutions that will prevent tragedy. The traditional unilateral models of treatment are no longer the solution to this deadly illness and are failing us time and time again.  Addiction is a multisystematic problem requiring a multisystematic solution.  There is no magic wand or quick fix.  We recognize that addiction is a family disease but treatment is focused on the individual engaging in addictive behaviors.  This phenomena creates an unrealistic expectation that if the individual goes to treatment that the family members will feel better. Subsequent to admitting a loved one into treatment,  countless family members have said to me "I thought I would feel better after, he/she was admitted into treatment, but I don't feel better..why don't I feel better?"  I typically respond with a lot of empathy and compassion followed by a dose of reality. "Unfortunately, as result of having a loved one with a substance abuse disorder you have experienced a significant trauma and trauma causes feelings of immense anxiety and agitation.  Your amgydala is in a state of hyperarousal causing reactivity and irrational thinking"...."In order to feel better you need to be engaged in treatment yourself to process these emotions, you also have a recovery process".    I also tell them that engaging in treatment themselves will increase the likelihood of their loved one recovering significantly.  A family cannot be healthy unless all the members of the family are healthy.  If an individual completes treatment and returns to the same family dynamic the odds of maintaining sobriety  are very much against them.  Addiction is a family disease and recovery is a family process.  The outcomes we see when families are engaged in treatment are drastically better.  Recovery is a parallel process but not a linear process and relapse is often part of this process. When families are engaged in treatment they learn to recognize warning signs, establish boundaries and set limits increasing the likelihood of re-engaging the loved one in treatment and decreasing the likelihood of tragedy.  Treating the whole family is essential to improving outcomes and saving lives.  As a parent, I can only imagine the horror of having a child struggling with addiction and although this isn't my current reality, it very well could be one day and I fully recognize the impact that this would have on my family.  Addiction destroys families and recovery restores them.

- Sarah Espenshade