Coping With Addiction in the Family

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NYC neurologist and addiction medicine specialist Dr. Russell Surasky provides 5 tips for families struggling with addiction.

Dr. Russell Surasky

The family plays a crucial role in helping the person struggling with addiction to improve.

Substance addiction has slowly become one of the most dangerous diseases in America with over 20 million people meeting the diagnosis. Addiction wreaks havoc on everything from brain cells to social bonds, leaving lives destroyed and communities shattered in its wake. Those afflicted experience cravings that hijack their lives, leaving family and friends disoriented and lost. “The family plays a crucial role in helping the person struggling with addiction to improve,” says neurologist and addiction medicine specialist Dr. Russell Surasky with Surasky Neurological Center for Addiction. “Providing a loving support structure for those dealing with addiction helps the person get treatment and prevent future relapse.” Here, Dr. Surasky provides 5 tips for families to help a loved one struggling with substance addiction.

  • Education

“When family members understand addiction and how powerful it becomes, they tend to become more compassionate. Loved ones begin to understand that the addiction changes the brain in ways beyond the person’s control,” says Dr. Surasky. “We recommend consulting professionals and learning about the latest science. We also advocate patience, since the disease tends to be a chronic struggle. Relapse is common and can be triggered by cues (buildings, bottles, etc.) that were once associated with the addiction. These habits are rigid and difficult to break, so expect an enduring struggle,” adds Dr. Surasky.

  • Encourage treatment, don’t force.

“The biggest challenge for families dealing with addiction is helping the individual understand that they have an issue in the first place. People struggling with addiction are often reluctant to acknowledge that they have a problem, despite failing to fulfill responsibilities, maintain relationships, and keep up with their jobs. This is a vicious way in which addiction captures the mind. It’s important for families to understand how sensitive this can be,” says Dr. Surasky. For the first step, Dr. Surasky recommends a heartfelt intervention, where a trained interventionist and the family gather around to help the person understand their self-destructive behavior. Families should not force the person into treatment, but rather encourage the person to help themselves.

  • Find support

Loved ones struggling with addiction can emotionally drain the family. Often times, family members become so focused on helping the afflicted person that they neglect self-care. Dr. Surasky advocates a routine of regular exercise, healthy eating, and sleep. Since people struggling with addiction can be difficult to be around, Dr. Surasky also supports family therapy and connecting with families going through similar circumstances. “Finding mental health support where families can share their feelings, such as Narconon, in a safe space provides a necessary outlet, which can build strength and unity.”

  • Balance between support and enabling

Often times, families try to support the person dealing with addiction by covering for them, lending money, and picking up the slack. Dr. Surasky advocates setting strict boundaries while maintaining a loving, supportive environment. “It’s crucial that the person dealing with addiction feels loved and supported. But they also need to feel the consequences of their actions. Family members tend to think that they can control, or limit the effects of the addiction without it getting worse. This often leads the family to make excuses and cover for the mistakes, which only hurts the situation,” says Dr. Surasky. Family members should communicate clear boundaries and stay strong while the person dealing with addiction endures the negative consequences.

  • Language matters

Dr. Surasky is a leading advocate in changing the language surrounding addiction. “I’ve found that labels like ‘addict’ and ‘abuser’ are damaging to those recovering from addiction. The labels shame and ostracize these people both within and outside the medical community. We need to separate the illness from the person who suffers from it. We don’t define sick people by their illnesses and we shouldn’t do it to people suffering with addiction.” Remember, people recovering from addiction are people first. Let’s use language of respect, not shame.

Russell Surasky, FAAN, ABAM, with Surasky Neurological Center for Addiction, is board certified in both neurology and addiction medicine, is one of the few physicians with this combination of credentials. His primary focus in practice is addiction medicine. Utilizing unique medication protocols individualized to each patient, he provides specialized treatment for opiate, benzodiazepine, and alcohol addiction.

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