Most of the men and women behind bars have a history of drug or alcohol abuse. This means that the family members they left behind—and will likely return to—have also been hammered by their loved one’s addiction. If you minister to prisoners’ families, here’s an outstanding resource to help them in their own recovery as they seek to help their loved one.
Review of Addict in the Family: Stories of Loss, Hope and Recovery by Beverly Conyers
Few other heartaches can compare with watching a loved one self-destruct. Except, perhaps, for the heartache of watching your own attempts to save your loved one repeatedly fail.
That’s how it is for those with an addict in the family—a child, sibling, parent, or spouse whose initial flirtation with alcohol or drugs has sucked him or her into an abusive, controlling “marriage” that now seems to offer no way of escape.
And like any abusive relationship, a person with an addiction can throw caring friends and family members into a state of confusion and high anxiety, often triggering ineffective “fight or flight” reactions.
They may “fight” to quash the relationship, grasping for a quick fix—a detox program, a scary night in jail that will cure the addict from ever taking another drink or drug hit again. They may start to monitor the addict’s every move, not realizing they’re trying to be just as controlling as the addiction, regardless of their motive. Or they may “take flight” to protect themselves from the frightening reality of out-of-control behavior—through denial, anger, excuses, blame. Who can fault them, when a loved one’s addiction threatens to wreck the stability and hope of every family member?
And then there’s the family member’s guilt: What did I do—or fail to do—that drove my loved one into the snares of this enticing but oppressive drug? Guilt is prime fodder for manipulation by an addict.
Stories of Those Who Have Been There
In the intensely moving Addict in the Family, author Beverly Conyers gives support and guidance to those struggling to understand and cope with a family member’s enslavement to drugs or alcohol. Conyers speaks with the empathy and hard-won wisdom of a mother who struggled through a daughter’s heroin addiction. And wisely, she does not assume that her specific experience applies across the board to everyone else’s experience.
Rather, she includes her story as just one of many courageously disclosed stories—revealing the various ways that addiction plays out in a family, and the shared feelings of fear, shame, and confusion that tie all those families (and the millions of others across the United States) together. Mixed in with these personal experiences are insights and information from medical and substance-abuse treatment professionals.
But if the book were merely a series of heart-rending stories and staggering statistics, it would offer other family members of addicts nothing more beneficial than a sense of “I’m not alone in this.” Instead, Conyers’ book is essentially an offering of hope: There are things family members can do to help put their loved one on the road to recovery. Perhaps more important, there are things family members can do to put themselves on the road to recovery—for family members often mirror the obsessive-compulsive symptoms of addiction as well.
Addicted to the Addict
Conyers writes: “Just as addiction is characterized by denial, obsession with drugs, compulsion to use, and emotional and physical illness, family members experience denial, obsession with the addict, compulsion to control the addict, and emotional and physical illness. In a very real sense, families can become addicted to the addict.”
To illustrate, she quotes the wife of a recovering heroin addict who relapsed after several years. “I started watching him like a hawk. Every time he stepped out the door, I’d feel this panic, thinking he was probably going out to score. Sometimes I’d be out driving around at eleven or twelve at night, looking for his car. I remember so many times sitting in the kitchen in the middle of the night calling every single hospital and police station I could think of to see if he’d been in an accident or OD’d. My whole world was consumed with fear for his safety and trying to make him get well.”
The mother of an alcoholic tells how her own mood hinges on her daughter’s. “If things are going okay, I can feel my mood lighten. If she’s not having a good day, my spirits sink. It’s like we’re attached at the hip. When she cycles up, I cycle up. When she cycles down, I cycle down.”
Not surprisingly then, this roller-coaster ride of coping with a loved one’s addiction can drain all the joy out of life, notes Conyers—“leading concerned family members to exist in a perpetual state of anxious exhaustion.” And in such a weakened state, anger and resentment can easily take over.
The Journey to Recovery
As this family portrait darkens and disheartens, Conyers begins to brush in streaks of gold: Family members don’t have to wait until the addict recovers before they can begin to enjoy life again. The key, she says, is for families to begin their own journey of recovery, which includes reclaiming the value of their own lives and learning healthier ways to interact with the addict. And in doing so, they can have a positive influence on their addicted loved one.
Some of these alternative responses may sound difficult, even heartless, at first—like learning to detach from the addict. “When I was first advised to detach from my daughter’s problem, I thought I was being told to turn my back on her,” writes Conyers. But she learned that detachment had nothing to do with rejecting or abandoning her daughter; it was a necessary step to reestablish the distinction between her and her daughter. Regaining her sense of self protected Conyers from being held hostage by her daughter’s mood swings, destructive actions, and manipulations.
Another step on the path to recovery is “letting crises happen.” Family members often rush to protect addicts from the consequences of their behavior—bailing them out of jail, making up an excuse for the addict’s boss as to why he or she missed work again. But Conyers emphasizes that family members who enable addicts to avoid the consequences of their actions are depriving them of an opportunity to grow. On the other hand, “by letting their loved ones feel the pain of addiction, families are leaving the door to recovery wide open.” What’s that motto? No pain, no gain.
Developing the Spiritual Core
Although Addict in the Family is not written from an explicit Christian perspective, Conyers does devote a section to “developing your spiritual core.” She writes that “spirituality, as it applies to healing from the effects of addiction, does not necessarily include a Higher Power in our lives, although it can. It simply means taking steps to awaken the core of joy that is present in all human beings from the moment of birth. This may involve religion, nature, art, music, literature, helping others, or following any other life-affirming pursuit that connects us to something greater than ourselves.”
Before any Christian gags on this fluffy new age-sounding definition, I want to point out two things. One, the section on spirituality—as well as other parts of the book—respectfully includes comments from those who specifically look to God as their source of power and grace. And two, none of the insights and counsel provided in the rest of the book—as far as I could tell—are antithetical to Christian values. Its strength is that it gives some very practical ways to love addicts “in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18) that will help them take responsibility for their actions (certainly a biblical concept!) and protect the family members from burnout (as even Jesus had to periodically disengage from the needy crowds to refresh Himself through prayer and fellowship with the Father).
This book is a valuable read for anyone who suffers the heartbreak of a loved one addicted to drugs or alcohol, as well as for anyone who knows a family with an addict in their midst. That surely includes anyone involved in prison ministry, since up to 80 percent of the men and women behind bars have a history of drug or alcohol abuse. Addict in the Family gives understanding, comfort, practical help, and that one thing that enables us to persevere through the most difficult trials—hope.