Lessons for Living in a Family with Addiction

How the Disease Impacts Loved Ones

"If you are traveling with someone who requires assistance, secure your own oxygen mask first."

Margaret Thompson, MS, LADC, and a Family Program counselor at Hazelden in Center City, Minnesota, says the familiar pre-flight announcement is a great analogy for what the Family Program teaches.

Here are some of Margaret’s thoughts about her own experience of coping with an addicted loved one, and her work with families—and what an oxygen mask has to do with recovery.

“Years ago, I was engaged to marry an addict. I tried to hang in there—to be the fixer and caretaker and to get him well—but it was at the expense of my own well-being. I was falling apart.

The relationship ended, and I moved to Minnesota to study at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. As students, we were required to participate for three days in the Family Program. For me, it was truly a transformational experience. That’s how I got started working my own recovery.

My job is to educate family members about addiction. I support them in the four-day journey of learning how the disease has impacted them. I help them to move forward in their own recovery—taking care of themselves in healthy ways, whether their loved one is sober or not.

One thing that makes Family Programs at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation so special—so magnificent—is that family members don’t attend with their own loved one in treatment. They meet with others in treatment who are not related to them.

It’s a brilliant and wise approach because family members are able to truly hear the perspective of the person struggling with addiction—without the baggage and pain they’d have with their own family member. It builds tremendous understanding on both sides and allows genuine healing to begin.

In the Family Program, participants begin to understand that addiction is absolutely a family disease—it impacts every member of the family. Family members may have tried every trick they know to save their loved one from the disease. They are so focused on the addict that they don’t acknowledge how they’ve been damaged, hurt, and traumatized by having to live through it, too.

That’s where the airplane analogy comes in. If I don’t put my oxygen mask on first, I might not survive and then I’d be of no use to anyone. I have to take care of myself first—heal the wounds, find coping methods—because then I am healthy and more able to support the people I love.

It’s a huge relief for family members to finally understand that.

I’ve been working at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation for 17 years. This place gave me a new career, and it also gave me my life back. I get to work in a program that I believe in, right down to my toes.
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