Each September marks National Recovery Month, a public health campaign across America that seeks both to promote recovery options available to those still struggling with substance abuse and mental disorders and to celebrate the people who have already begun their recovery process. These are commendable aims, to be sure. This year, the theme selected by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is “Join the Voices for Recovery: Strengthen Families and Communities.” Last year, the theme was “Join the Voices for Recovery: Our Families, Our Stories, Our Recovery!” So for the past couple years, SAMHSA has lifted up the crucial role that family and friends play as sources of support to vulnerable individuals. But all these family and friends naturally have their own needs for support, and they too deserve a model for healthy recovery, one that at long last receives the endorsement due it.
From the earliest days of the Twelve Step recovery movement, participants recognized that family and friends of the alcoholics in AA had distinct needs for fellowship and mutual aid after years of surviving insanity. They began meetings in 1936, but it took more than a decade for them to formalize their organization as Al-Anon Family Groups, which finally opened New York offices in 1951. Al-Anon then served as a prototype for later organizations, among them Nar-Anon, Gam-Anon, and S-Anon; these support groups help members manage the duress and distress of living with those prone to either substance abuse or process addictions, including gambling habits and sexual compulsion. They support “those effected” persons in addictive situation in getting the help required, even if the addict or alcoholic is continuously using and disinclined to seek treatment – even if the addict or alcoholic refuses to admit there’s any problem in the first place.
The book We Recovered Too: The Family Groups’ Beginnings in the Pioneers’ Own Words recounts that an Al-Anon co-founder initially “believed that Al-Anon would be equal to, if not rival, AA in membership and effectiveness. Yet many loved one ones of alcoholics continue to suffer,” just as the loved ones of various addicts do. Mental health professionals see that suffering in our counseling offices all around the country, and we are thankful to have such an array of family support groups as resources for referral. We providers recognize just how extensive the aftermath of living in close proximity to substance abuse and mental disorder can be. We hand our clients leaflets that use questions for titles, such as “Did You Grow Up With a Problem Drinker?” We hand these out because there are signs, symptoms, and struggles particular to those who can answer yes to these questionnaires, and because even cursory assessments can be revelatory.
Recently, an older woman whose husband had gotten clean and sober after three years of drug and alcohol abuse told me she was expected to continuously support him at the same time that she herself had to surrender any expectation of getting any emotional support from her spouse. All his energy and focus was directed to maintaining his sobriety. It was unfair, she complained, after all the interventions she staged. She felt like a bit player in drama that someone else’s addiction was scripting and starring in, and she did not know what plot twists lay ahead — relapse, say, or overdose, or hospitalization. She was simultaneously exhausted and hypervigilant and to make matters worse, she felt self-conscious about getting help solely for herself.
“Why not recovery for a whole Addictive System?” author Anne Wilson Schaef asks in her book, When Society Becomes an Addict. In it, she writes that “we can equate our spirituality and our process with sobriety. We cannot allow anything to come between us and our spirituality, or between us and our living process.” We cannot numb ourselves to psychic pain when what we really need is to commit to fully healing – particularly if we are the “sober” ones seeking to be happy, joyous, and free. AA calls addiction “a threefold disease: spiritual, mental, and physical”. It is a disease that infects entire families and whole communities. Those involved with addicts have had their safety and sanity jeopardized by active addiction, time and again, and the chronic stress and repeated interpersonal traumas of course take a toll – spiritually, mentally, and physically. It cannot be otherwise, whatever wishful thinking might suggest.
Currently, we have an epidemic of addiction in the United States. Opioid abuse is a pandemic, marijuana use is now normalized, and for the first time in years, alcoholism rates are on the rise. All those “soft” process additions are also hitting us hard. We certainly need for addicts to get the treatment they desperately need, as soon as possible, but we need to remember that the lives of the immediately addicted are not the only ones that hang in the balance. The lives of their children, spouses, parents, siblings, lovers, and friends are also routinely damaged, diminished, and endangered. The numbers of “those effected” are staggering. My hope for this September, and every Recovery Month that we commemorate in future years, is that we reckon honestly with the all-too-human collateral costs of addiction – in SAMSHA materials, in ongoing public health campaigns, in support groups, and in our counseling centers. Complete recovery for everyone in this addicted society should be our ambition today. Let’s “Join the Voices for Recovery” and ask for that.
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