In his provocative new TED talk, “The Opposite of Addiction is Connection,” Johann Hari tells us about his extensive quest to understand the root cause of addiction and posits that connection is the opposite of addiction, and if addicts can just feel connected, they won’t need to use/drink. Some of that supposition is true and some of it is dead wrong. While I agree with his belief that isolation is dangerous when it comes to addiction, connection is not “the” solution. Having a strong support system is a vital element of recovery, but so are good treatment, a new (spiritual) path and a commitment to change. Sometimes it also includes needed medication for mental health issues such as depression or bipolar disorder. And if possible, part of that support system – that connection – is the addict’s family.
Hari’s talk did get me thinking that about why our Action Intervention™ model works. Unlike the so-called “surprise party” model (also known as the Johnson model) that is featured on the TV show Intervention, where the family potentially alienates the addict, surprising her and often shaming or guilting her into treatment, in Action Intervention™, the family is coached to invite the addict to come be part of a 2-day family workshop that everyone will attend to learn more about the disease of addiction and the power of enabling to perpetuate it, and work together to shift the family away from disease and towards recovery. And unlike the Johnson Model, where the addict typically gets dropped off at treatment and the family hopes she’ll be “fixed,” at the end of our workshops, everyone commits to following through on his/her own recovery plan, NOT just the addict.
By using sociometry with the family in this type of workshop, we can help them to face the truth about what’s been going on in this system since addiction invaded it. Who are you most connected to in this family? Who are you least connected to? Whose support do you wish you could ask for? Who are you most concerned about? Often by asking these hands-on questions (family members place their hand on the shoulder of the person they are choosing), the feelings – the grief, anger and fear – about the long-standing disconnection are revealed. Family members come to see that the addict isn’t the only one who’s feeling the separation. Moreover, they realize that as the disease has progressed, their connections have only been about and through the addict, and they’ve lost the ones they used to have with each other.
There’s a paradigm shift that MUST happen in the treatment industry – to include the family in the therapeutic process right from the start, and demand the same level of commitment to recovery from the family as we do from the addict.
The acceptable norm has been that the family might attend a 3- or 4-day family program while the addict is in treatment and that’s it. But how many family members are actually willing to attend their own intensive treatment program to explore their history of codependency and enabling and learn how to set healthy boundaries? How many of them are willing to go to therapy to support their own on-going recovery process? Or go to a support group such as Al-Anon, get a sponsor and work the 12-Steps? Unless the family is helped to understand their part in the progression of the illness, they won’t be invested in doing their own work and the family reintegration work of meeting periodically to assess their progress and setbacks, recommit to the process and plan the next steps for their future. But that’s what it takes to get better. They’ll continue to believe that it’s the addict’s problem and not theirs, which again, promotes blame and disconnection.
Hari is deeply concerned about the negative effects of shunning and alienating addicts rather than sitting with them and staying connected. Neuroscience has proven over and over again that human beings do have a natural urge to bond and be connected. So do family members, but it’s all but impossible to bond with someone who’s in the throes of addiction. Hari is vehemently opposed to the idea of “tough love” or the idea of cutting off the addict unless s/he gets clean. Frankly, “tough love” is just as tough on the family as it is on the addict. And there’s a big difference between alienation and setting and keeping really clear boundaries about what you’re willing to support. When families are educated about the disease of addiction, they come to understand the difference between the person and the disease: you can love the person and hate the disease; you can emotionally support the person but if s/he is actively using/drinking, then you can’t support the perpetuation of the disease. That’s not shunning – that’s called a limit.
As the daughter of two alcoholic parents, there were times where the pain of watching them suffer was almost unbearable for me, especially because I knew I couldn’t do anything to stop it. It didn’t matter that I worked in the addiction treatment community, it didn’t matter how long I’d been in recovery and it certainly didn’t matter how many letters I had behind my name. All I could do was love them, let them know that I loved them and that I would be willing to do anything I could to help if they were willing to stop drinking. Once I did that, the other vital piece for me was that I had to take a giant step back for my own health and sanity, because it was too much for me to watch them killing themselves with alcohol and cigarettes. Addiction takes its toll on everyone in the family, and it’s important to remember that the addict isn’t the only who suffers.
Addiction destroys families and it disconnects everyone in the system, not just one person. Our model of intervention and ongoing Family Reintegration Workshops can help remedy that. Rather than an “us” against “them” mindset, it’s “us” against the disease; “us” doing our own individual work as well as our family work, so that together we can ALL recover. That’s bonding and connection, and is an important ingredient in the overall recipe for arresting addiction, one day at a time.
For more information about the Action Intervention Training™ model, please visit our website at actioninterventiontraining.com