In the beginning
A little over five years ago, I discovered my sister Gemma was addicted to drugs. They weren’t so-called ‘light’ drugs either. They were hard drugs – heroin, painkillers, etc. – highly addictive substances that were affecting her academic, social and family life.
My parents were as shocked as I was when we found out. Both Gemma and I were at university at the time, and my sister had always been a good student and a perfectionist, as well as my very best friend.
My parents have a legal firm and pride themselves on being committed members of the community.
In addition to working hard, they have always stressed the importance of giving back to the community, and teaching us to do the same.
They are self-made, so to speak, and they always instilled the importance of a solid work ethic and of setting ambitious goals.
They took the news about Gemma’s addiction hard, and I knew that apart from being worried about her pulling through, they were also concerned about how the community would perceive them.
They socialized with a closed circle and feared being judged as bad parents.
When Gemma was admitted to rehab, her counselors spoke to us about the value of family therapy. We were reserved at first, but what we learned was eye-opening and will be of value to us for the rest of our lives.
The first thing we learned
The first thing the therapists told us was that blame, shame, guilt, criticism, judgement – all these emotions had little place on the road to recovery.
For one, the cause of Gemma’s addiction was impossible to pinpoint. There was no point in blaming ourselves when there were a number of reasons why she might have begun using drugs, including genetic reasons.
Dad revealed that he has, in fact, lost a family relative to addiction and that our grandfather was an alcoholic (my grandfather passed away before Gemma and I were born).
The second thing we learned
We discovered that the substances that Gemma had been using were extremely addictive. Drugs like heroin have a unique ability to rewire the brain’s reward system.
Basically, even when somebody uses these drugs just a few times or to experiment, they are capable of creating a powerful addiction that can require professional help to overcome.
In therapy, we also learned a lot about our own family and the sometimes unhealthy roles we played.
The therapist, Camille, explained that everyone tends to react to problems in a specific way, with each family member taking on a role.
Those who seek closeness for instance, can become overbearing during conflict, seeking to talk about problems right away and come to a swift conclusion ‘right here, right now’.
And those who are distancers, seek escape, often avoiding an argument or refusing to discuss difficult issues. And others resort to blame – instead of focusing on how to solve the problem at hand.
During therapy, we talked about how each of us could do our share to improve conflict resolution strategies in the home.
Most importantly, we committed to using the right language to get our point across, and agreed to focus on how to fix what was wrong, instead of pointing the finger at each other.
The Importance of compassion
Gemma has been drug-free now for many years and our family is stronger and happier as a result.
Mum and dad became much more accepting and open after therapy and we began focusing on spending time together and having fun, paying less regard to what others think of us and simply enjoying the time we have together.
One of the most important lessons we learned from Camille, the therapist, was the importance of compassion.
When an issue like drugs hits home, taking a compassionate approach to our loved one’s problem increases their chances of recovery exponentially.
It also makes the atmosphere much less combative and argumentative, as family bonds strengthen and we start valuing the effect our actions have on the happiness, health and wellbeing of our loved ones.
I believe that by focusing on uniting rather than on who was to blame, we made it easier for Gemma to discover why her life was worth fighting for.
She was loved, regardless of what happened in her life, but she also loved us, and we needed to see her healthy and happy. So compassion was definitely a two-way street as far as her recovery (and our strength as a family unit) was concerned.
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