Therapist in Los Angeles
Darren Haber MFT

My Wife / Husband / Child is Finally in Rehab; Now What?

So your child, or romantic partner, or close friend, or sibling, or ... has finally agreed to go to rehab for his/her drinking or drug problem. Now what?

So your child or romantic partner (or close friend, sibling, etc) has finally agreed to go to rehab for his/her drinking or drug problem. Now what?

There are some important things you can start doing right away, and approximately none of them have to do with the addict / alcoholic. They are, however, related to the person you've likely been ignoring for a while now, if in fact you've been living with, helping, or "enabling" the addict.

That's right, I'm talking about you.

But wait, you're thinking, I'm not the one with the problem…it's him (or her), not me!

Well, yes and no. No, you may not be addicted to a "substance" per se, but addiction is a family disease, wrecking nearly everyone and everything in its merciless path. It may take some time to become aware of the emotional and psychological damage on a family level.

Some of you may already be aware that something was severely "off" about the situation, even where your own emotions and strength were concerned. You wondered why you couldn't just walk away…or hold the boundaries you so earnestly tried to keep…or kick him or her out of your life once and for all, to end the suffering and chaos that was making you crazy. It was so hard to detach, to shut the door on the person once and for all. If he/she wants to throw their life away, then so be it, but I'm getting off this insane merry go round.

And then you discovered, to your horror, that you can't.

Then, finally, the addict gets to rehab. And yet the "edge" is still there, that worry, that undertow of anxiety. Perhaps the internal "tape loop" would sound something like this:

Sure, they're safe in rehab now…but what about when they get out? Then what? What if they return to their same old shtick? If they do, yours truly isn't going to stand for it! Those rehab people better know what they're doing! But does rehab really work? Are there any real statistics? What if they're lying to me about how "good" they're doing? What if their counselor is believing the same old b.s.? And how come I haven't heard from them…and why I am obsessing about this all over again?

There's a name for this phenomenon, which some call "co-dependence", others "enabling", though for my purposes here I'll use the term "co-addiction".

The fact is, addiction is an emotionally-charged way of life that, like a black hole, exerts a darkly magnetic pull on all those in its orbit: spouses, family members, children, siblings: all get pulled in. Those who come from alcoholic families are especially vulnerable. Alcoholics are notoriously adept at sending out S.O.S. signals and then rejecting help when it arrives. Co-addicts are expert at "rescuing" addicts from consequences – and turning a blind eye or minimizing (denial) the wreckage piling up around them, since they often feel "responsible" for "saving" the alcoholic. Though they mean well (we're talking about family after all), this "rescuing" impulse goes into overdrive, resulting in the insanity of endless failed attempts (to get the person to stop), stifling anger, self-righteousness, existential despair, etc. When the alcoholic finally does get help (thank goodness), the "co" may be left with a huge pile of unresolved emotional and, just as likely, financial wreckage to sift through. Because alcoholism and addiction are so difficult to understand, families often need help and relief as much as the addict.

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If you're a true co-addict (and this is true if you're also an addict, even a sober one, who has a friend or family member in recovery or needing treatment), you can't just "walk away". Perhaps the professionals have urged you to let go, "trust the process", but you can't. There's a knot in your stomach that just won't abate, a lump of hot coal burning away… if that "burning" could talk, it might sound something like: Sure, they're safe and sound in rehab now, but what about me? How come no one's asked me about all the heartbreak I've been through, the time and money and energy wasted… oh sure, he gave lip service to me about the "trouble he caused", but I'm sure he didn't mean it…he's sitting pretty now with three square meals and a cushy bed… who's to say he won't get out of that place and start up again… do those rehab people really understand what it's like living with a dopehead, all the late-night calls and worrying… they probably don't have a clue… what with the lawyers and police… I'm tired of bailing him out…no more, I say, never again! But hold on, I'm getting worked up again, they told me to stay calm, take it "a day at a time", whatever that means, I just wish someone would tell me what's going on or what to do.If this little "monologue", or something like it, sounds at all familiar, you're a prime candidate for al-anon and, possibly, individual or family counseling.Co-addiction is a curious thing; in many ways it parallels alcoholism. Just as the alcoholic believes that "next time it'll be different" (i.e., they'll be able to get a handle on drinking), the co-addict often believes that "next time they'll be different" (i.e., buying into the addict's denial, in spite of massive evidence to the contrary). This is sometimes referred to as "ignoring the elephant in the room". Thus the parallel process of addiction and co-addiction, wherein those close to the addict start to believe the same lies and rationalizations: a way of warding off hopelessness and despair. But the tough, hard-nosed acceptance of the reality of the situation, dire as it may seem, is often the spark that leads at long last to change. And if you, the co-addict, can begin to honestly (and often painfully) accept the ways you bought into the addict's denial/coping system (i.e., insanity), you can begin to feel some of the same relief the addict receives simply by being sober and stopping the self-destructive cycle.Another way of putting it is, the addict/alcoholic makes a "higher power" out of the drug or the drink; the co-addict makes –– often in very subtle ways – the addict the higher power…meaning that until they're safe, you're not. In other words, the addict wants to control the drug, the co-addict wants to control the addict. It's a variation on that old self-help book, "I'm Ok/You're Ok"; the co-addict's version is, "I'm Ok if You're Ok" or "I'm ok if I'm convinced You're Ok".

Truthfully, after all the havoc wreaked by the addict, he/she will never be ok enough to convince you to relax and find true peace of mind. You're going to need some healing of your own to find the inner balance and serenity you crave – and deserve. Because there are no guarantees, period, and it's "a day at a time" for everyone, including you. Learning to walk that path often requires a little help, and there's no shame in that. In fact, asking for help (rather than "toughing it" on your own) is the true way of courage. Paradoxically, knowing where you're weak (and taking action accordingly) is often a sign of strength.

Both addicts and co-addicts need abstinence – mostly from addictive thinking (i.e., denial, a need for external "fixes" to internal problems, etc). That involves programs for all family members, specifically designed for either the addict or co-addict, that will introduce new ideas and behaviors that may seem radical, at first, but eventually become more comfortable and, even more crucially, effective.

It may sound like bad news, but the truth is, pursuing your own recovery as the co-addict may be the best thing you can do for your loved one in recovery. Curiously enough, surrendering the concept of controlling them and finding your own healing may be the best way to help. Once those close to you sense real change occurring, they will (hopefully) be inspired to pursue change of your own. Once the old lies and rationalizations stop working, the newly-sober addict or alcoholic will have to try something new. She just may feel safe enough, with your new foundation emerging, to try something just plain crazy: tell the truth, warts and all. And being a safe place for your loved one to tell the truth, no matter what, is one of the greatest gifts you can ever give.

©Copyright 2009 by Darren Haber, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org. The following article was solely written and edited by the author named above. The views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the following article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment to this blog entry.