PHOTO: Family Program Director Martin Garcia explains the guidelines for a communication exercise between patients and relatives, a part of Family Week at La Hacienda.
Alcoholism and addiction affect not just the patient but also their families. But just as they can be negatively impacted by the disease, family members can also help make sustained recovery more likely.
They are part of the “we” in the Recovery Month 2019 theme, “Together We Are Strong.”
The primary goal of La Hacienda’s Family Program is to help family members learn about chemical dependency, gain an understanding of how family members are affected by the disease, improve communication skills, and begin behavioral change.
Beginning to Understand the Problem
People close to someone who struggles with addiction or alcoholism are often slow to acknowledge what is happening, says Family Program Director Martin Garcia.
“For most of them, realization happens slowly. They think of it as ‘one of those things everybody goes through,’ and brush it off.”
This denial can cause many problems.
“When family members finally acknowledge what’s happening, they have mixed feelings and opinions about what needs to be done. It creates chaos. It tears right through the fabric of the family,” says Martin.
After the patient is admitted and under care, those close to them may feel that is all that’s needed, says Martin.
“They think, ‘Good, he or she is in treatment and off drugs or alcohol. Now everything is going to be better. The reality is family members need to make some changes and adjustments in their lives too.”
La Hacienda’s primary resource in supporting family members is Family Week, a three-and-a-half-day program held each week on the Hunt Campus. Family members are invited to participate with the patient, usually in his or her third week of treatment.
Family Week is a significant commitment but worth the effort. Relatives are uncertain what they will face, based on their experience with the patient before treatment. The Family Program staff is dedicated to accompanying them through the process.
“A family member told me that, he knew he needed to come, but it was not in his list of the top five things he wanted to do,” says Martin. “They come, but they are anxious, angry, and frustrated.”
“I tell them their loved one is getting the best treatment in the country. They’re getting better, and they want their families to be better too. That way the patients can go home to a family which understands or is starting to understand, their disease.”
Introduction, Instruction, Participation
Family members arrive on Monday, and the program starts with informational sessions led by staff.
A member of the medical team presents a talk on addiction and the brain, with important information about how we understand addiction to be a disease. Understanding what they are up against is an essential point in rebuilding trust.
Family members also learn about Al-Anon and other organizations which support the loved ones of people addicted or in recovery.
Many family members ask, “Why do I have to go to 12-step meetings?”
“I tell them it’s not punishment, it’s a benefit,” says Martin. “I ask them how many hours a week they worried about their loved one before treatment. All we are asking is that they spend one hour a week in a meeting. For their well-being.”
Talking About Feelings
Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon sessions involve patients and family members exchanging statements about how they feel, then discussing what they’ve heard each other say. Tissue boxes are scattered about the room for this emotional practice of a skill that will help support recovery.
“It’s an exercise in healing,” says Martin. “Most participants are on board with it. We cry, we laugh, and we feel better afterward.”
On Wednesdays, the patients are given passes to leave La Hacienda for an evening’s activity with their families. They often go to dinner and maybe a movie. Some go shopping. Others go on picnics. They’ve even gone fishing.
Martin says the night out is meant to help families and patients alike understand that part of recovery is recovering the ability to have fun together. The disease took away that option, but it is again possible in recovery.
Making Plans for the Future
On Thursday, the last day of Family Week, there is a review of recovery plans developed by both patients and families. A primary goal is to identify how to communicate about any concerns that arise in the future in a way that is direct, but still supportive.
“Family members fear asking questions in the wrong way and perhaps causing a relapse,” says Martin. “But if they are expressed from a place of concern and love, they’re going to be OK.”
“Similarly, we tell patients that their families are going to be anxious, nervous and afraid. We try to help the patients understand that families are going to make mistakes, but that is OK.”
“If family members are wrong, they can apologize. If they’re right, but stay quiet, they may miss an opportunity to save a life,” says Martin.
Time for Gratitude
In a final Family Week activity, participants share something for which they are grateful. Sometimes it’s an opportunity to say a special goodbye or thank someone.
One thing is almost always stated, says Martin.
“It never fails. Somebody stands up and thanks their family, parents or spouse for being here, saying things like ‘I didn’t know what we were going to face, but I’m glad we did this.”
On a comments survey, one participant compared Family Week to physical training. “It’s like working out, you don’t want to do it, but when you are done, you’re glad you did.”