Addiction is a chronic disease that is characterized by the prolonged, repeated misuse of substances despite negative consequences; physical and psychological dependence are key features of a substance use disorder (SUD). Unfortunately, the negative consequences of addiction are often not limited to the substance user; it can affect family, friends and significant others too.
The US Surgeon General emphasizes that many people are able to make the behavioral changes needed to maintain recovery – especially with healthy and supportive social networks and recovery-supportive environments. It is important to acknowledge and address the impact that addiction has had on you as a member of this supportive social network. You may feel fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, and may have experienced physical or emotional abuse. Substance use disorder has lasting effects on those who love the person misusing drugs or alcohol the most.
Spouses and partners of those addicted to substances are particularly vulnerable as they are often the ones trying to cope with and compensate for many of the negative consequences of addiction – including financial, legal and social problems. They may also be trying to protect their children from these consequences. Those married to or in long-term partnerships with those with SUD may feel as though they have lost their significant other and that they too have lost an important part of their social support network.
It is important to remember that you are not alone, despite the isolation often associated with addiction. As a spouse or partner, you can also access support. This can be in the form of therapy, support groups for spouses of those with SUD, and other treatments. Lakeview Health includes the immediate family in their treatment programs and offers a wide range of resources and a support program for those with loved ones in treatment.
What are support groups?
Support groups are a way to bring people who have shared similar experiences and who are facing similar challenges together. By sharing in a safe, non-judgmental environment, spouses and partners of those with SUD can offer compassion, support, comfort and encouragement to those facing similar challenges. They can expect the same from other members of the group.
It can also be a resourceful way to find helpful, practical and relevant information. Medical practitioners may not be able to provide the emotional support that you require, while friends and family may not truly understand the challenges you face. Support groups can bridge this gap and offer a safe place to share feelings and experiences, healthy coping strategies and learning or information resources.
Benefits of support groups
To be able to share feelings and experiences in a safe and supportive environment can be healing in and of itself. Each person will join a support group with their own goals in mind and will have their own experience. Despite this, many people report similar benefits of support groups, including:
- Reduced feelings of isolation and loneliness
- Having a place where you can talk openly and honestly without fear of judgement
- Reduced anxiety, depression, fatigue and distress
- Finding new coping skills, mechanisms and strategies and improving these
- Staying motivated
- Feeling more empowered
- Gaining a sense of hope and control
- Learning about addiction and its treatment
- Improving your understanding of SUD and co-occurring illnesses
- Sharing helpful and practical resources
Mandy Jack, VP of Clinical Services highlights the importance of support groups for families.
How to Get the Most Out of a Support Group
Many people feel nervous about joining a support group. There is the unknown aspect of who is in the group and how you will be received. If a person is not familiar with the group dynamics or is apprehensive about sharing personal experiences, this can place them under significant strain and cause anxiety. This is normal. One way to combat this is to listen at first. Get a feel for the group and, when you feel ready, share your own thoughts and experiences. You will get the most out of a support group if you both listen and actively share.
It is also important to remember that not all support groups are the same. If you feel that a particular group isn’t a good fit for you, that is fine. Try to find a group that you resonate with. Of course, no group is perfect, so try a group for a few weeks before making a judgement. Remember that support groups are not a substitute for group therapy or any other medical treatment.
- Is this group for a specific SUD (such as alcoholism) or stage of treatment (such as withdrawal or remission)?
- Is there a set number of meetings or does it meet indefinitely?
- Where does the group meet?
- When does the group meet and how long is each meeting?
- Is the group free, if not what is the cost?
- Is it run by a moderator or facilitator?
- What training and experience does the moderator or facilitator have? For example, some groups are run by facilitators who are social workers or psychologists.
- What are the rules for confidentiality?
- Does the group have established ground rules or a group contract and how is this enforced?
- What is a typical meeting like?
Spouse and Partner Support at Lakeview Health
Research has shown that spouses and significant others experience the benefits associated with joining support groups mentioned above. They learn healthier coping strategies, have a better support structure and develop a sense of community. Studies also show that the person with SUD also benefits from their spouse or partner seeking help and being involved in their treatment and recovery. The benefits of including family members in treatment for addiction include:
- Reduced rates of relapse
- Better rates of successful recovery
- Less time in the hospital
- Better mental health
- Decreased rates of incarceration
When your partner or spouse enters treatment at Lakeview Health, we offer support to the patient as well as their family and loved ones. Family members will receive support and resources, we also encourage:
- Becoming educated about the disease of addiction
- Attending phone sessions with the patient’s primary therapist and following their recommendations
- Participation in our three-day family workshop and family therapy program
- Attending a local support group for spouses of those with substance use disorders (such as the SMART Family & Friends or Al-Anon Family meetings)
- Joining the alumni family program
The first day revolves around psychoeducation, giving family members information about the nature of addiction as a disease. Abstinence-based recovery and effective communication are discussed. Our facilitators explain how family systems work, what roles different people fall into in this system and educate on codependency in addiction. Learning about setting healthy boundaries and how to put these into practice is a core component of the workshop.
Participants in the workshop get to share their experiences in a safe and supportive environment. Family members and patients have the space to share their feelings and experiences openly. The goal is to start rebuilding trust and healthy relationships. It is also a way to learn about continued support after the patient leaves treatment. It might be the first time that spouses, partners and family members encounter group therapy. Although support groups are not substitutes for group therapy, it is a good model for what to expect in a group setting and what a good support group can feel like.