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Addiction in the Family

The primary purpose of Cedars at Cobble Hill is to provide residential, intensive treatment for people suffering from the disease of addiction/alcoholism. We use the Twelve Steps of recovery as the foundation of our treatment, but we also integrate what we are learning from the latest neuroscientific research into our family treatment process.

And the knowledge gained from that research is strengthening a dimension to our treatment process which is not unique to Cedars, but is not always treated seriously in in many treatment centres – we treat addiction as a relational illness. And it’s not an afterthought or an informational add-on. We focus on relationships because addiction twists and distorts them and they need to be put back on track.  When relationships are left untreated, couples and families live their lives at the service of addiction. The addict’s relationship with their drugs of choice is an exclusive emotional, love relationship, and everyone else accommodates – walks on eggshells in fear and worry – or cuts themselves off in anger and disgust not knowing what else to do. People who love addicts become just as helpless and hopeless as the addict. In the same way the addict is bound up in a powerless struggle against compulsion, craving, loss of control and negative consequences – for the people who love them the addict becomes the focus of obsessive enabling, blaming, compulsive caretaking, and control.

Relationship is probably the lamest word in the English language. It’s feeble, because it doesn’t come close to naming the elegance and mystery that is at the core of what it means to be human. Evolution has hardwired us to connect with and depend on one another at every level of our existence. Everything about us is bound up in the inexplicable dance of attraction and aversion to other people. Human beings cannot be understood, if we can be understood at all, outside of being-in-relationship. Our intimate attachment to the people who make up our families can create and change us, and encourage us to grow, or attachment can contribute to making us sick. When addiction has infiltrated a relationship, people often die – and not just the person suffering from the illness itself. At the very least, addiction tears relationships apart as it tries to draw every individual into its service.

Overstating? Listen to a group of good people who feel alone and desperate because they love an addict and you will soon conclude – no. That’s why we treat the relational character of addiction so seriously. That’s why we invite people who have lost themselves in someone else’s addiction to learn more about it, share their experience with others, and discover how they can support one another in reclaiming their own lives. Even though it is crucial to understand that families do not cause addiction, nor can they control or cure it, it is vitally important to learn that family members do play their part in the unfolding of addiction, and that each one can play a part in contributing to the relational recovery of the whole family. Words like enabling and caretaking come to mind.

We help people turn their attention to their own wholeness as beings-in-relationship. In everyday language, that means they are encouraged to reflect on and talk about their behaviour and attitudes in their marriages and families – even in their professional and work relationships. We focus the work on what we all share in common but is mostly ignored, avoided and often denigrated in our culture – the experience of which no words can precisely name. I’m talking about getting in touch with feelings, and learning how to express them. Here’s where the findings of neuroscience have confirmed the genius behind the origins of the Twelve Steps.

The founders of AA and the AA family groups, known as Al-anon, discovered that people heal and reclaim their lives best in a supportive community. They knew intuitively that what they called a spiritual journey and a power greater than themselves essentially are about – and here’s that clunky word again – relationships.

Now neuroscience is helping us understand how our brains are hardwired to find connection with other humans. And the social sense organ of that connection – of attachment and love – is our emotions. The trouble is, our emotions emerge from the part of our brain that is not the place where language comes from.  Communicating with words originates in another part of our brain.

Simply put, our brain has evolved into a complex network of three main parts: the reptilian, the mammalian (the limbic brain) and the neocortex, which is considered unique to being human. The neocortex is the centre of rational thought, decision-making – making choices – and the ability to learn language. We can’t reason or rationalize about our emotional relationships – even though we try. Nor can we improve them using our reason. We need to get in touch with our feelings.

The limbic system is the seat of attachment and care for one another – of social connection, of nurturing, safeguarding and playing with one another. It’s common to all mammals. And most relevant to our program, our limbic brain is where the emotions, those most mysterious of mammalian experiences, are conceived.

Our limbic brain is the centre of emotional healing – and its social nature makes that healing really possible only in the context of supportive people who share a common experience. Evolution made no mistake in putting together individual healing and other people.

Addiction makes the give and take of family life sick, so people must begin their healing by reaching outside their families for help. A treatment centre is a training camp that offers all members of a family the opportunity for getting in touch with themselves. There is no cure for addiction or its effects on relationships, but if people are willing to accept our prescription and build on the connection and support they find in our program, they can build happy, healthy families and relationships for the long haul.

Our program for people affected by addiction or other relationship dysfunction is called Discovery, and I’m one of the facilitators.

Dale MacIntyre M.Div, RCC – Cedars Cobble Hill

This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. This is an excellent article Dale. Thank you for expressing the essence of the Discovery program for families. Getting in touch with myself, my emotions and the impact of alcoholism on my family, in the supportive environment, of Discovery has been so beneficial. My continuing recovery through a support group (Al Anon) is helping me gain strength, wisdom and insight. What a gift.

  2. Hi, I read your article about those affected by another person’s addiction and I am very curios to learn more about your Discovery program.
    I am so far in debt because my daughter is an alcoholic and I have tried so hard to help her in her journey of being sober, keeping her children and just staying alive. I am exhausted, broke and feeling hopeless and scared. Thank you for your article
    Desiree

  3. Great article. I have 8 months clean and sober thanks to my stay at Cedars. This January i can start the process to enroll in the Discovery program. Unfortunately i have no family members or loved ones to take the program, likely due to my untreated disease, so I will take it.

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