The Identified Patient concept has been around for decades. Psychologists have used this term to show how families scapegoat a member of the family system and how shame takes root as the result. There is much written on the subject, but for this discussion the definition of the Identified Patient is the family’s false belief that the system is healthy and that the individual (the Identified Patient) is the one who needs to change. This is a dangerous mindset that will negatively impact an individual’s ability to find recovery.
This mindset is not impossible to overcome, but it certainly isn’t easy. As usual, a disclaimer is in order. There are many views on this subject as well as in-depth studies. We do not claim to be an expert on the subject and we will be presenting a simplistic model of the condition and offer our opinions on how to overcome it.
By the time an individual is ready for residential treatment, the situation has become unbearable. Families are angry, frustrated, sad, hurt and confused, and the idea of just getting the person somewhere safe where professionals can help is justified. The relief of having your loved one safe is magical. You can sleep, not worry about phone calls in the middle of the night…..you can exhale. This is actually the time the work really begins, but before we get to the work part, let’s discuss the impact that NOT doing the work can have on the one in treatment.
When people enter treatment, they are educated, confronted, supported and encouraged to change. If they are the only ones doing the changing, it can feel isolating and like they are the problem. Addiction is a family disease, and a family cannot help but be affected. No matter how healthy a family thinks it is, there is always some work that can be done.
Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking all is well because your loved one is in treatment. Your involvement is imperative - and welcome. We see better results from families who participate not only in the treatment process but also in their form of recovery. Not participating in the process can be akin to wasting an opportunity that treatment is providing, an opportunity that has likely cost the family both financially and emotionally.
What keeps families from participating? The most common excuses we see in not participating in the recovery/treatment process are embarrassment, being too busy and not wanting to change. Occasionally, selfishness and arrogance can stand in the way.
No addict ‘wants’ to go to treatment; we get pushed and funneled that way by a chronic, deadly, progressive illness and a loving family/concerned friends. The expectation is that we will change as soon as we agree to go.
The family should be held to the same standard, change. Most treatment programs offer a family program, and this is a perfect place to start the journey of change. You will be with like-minded individuals who are most likely struggling with the same insecurities, and the group process will pull you along. If you are helping someone get into treatment you owe it to yourself and that person to be involved. Make the decision before they enter the program. Actions speak louder than words, and this one screams ‘we are in this together.’
Beyond the feeling of togetherness, there are practical reasons why families should be involved. Learning about addiction is an important part, but in today’s information age, most parents have already spent many hours researching addiction. The key reason to attend is to learn how to be the parent/loved one of someone in early recovery. Just because your loved one has gone to treatment does not mean the behavior stops. Learning and implementing healthy boundaries is not only important for your sanity, but could have a positive effect for your loved one’s recovery.
Connecting with individuals in the same situation as you is important. This is where family programs and 12-Step programs can be helpful. A pressure relief valve will activate when you connect with a fellow parent who has gone through what you have, and you’ll connect in ways that a professional cannot achieve. The support rendered in these settings has saved families, but it takes a leap of courage.
There are a lot of great programs out there. Some of our favorites are Al-Anon, CODA and Families Anonymous, but do your own research and find a good fit. Remember: recovery is not a program of attendance; it is a program of action. Get a sponsor, go to meetings and work the Steps. There are some great therapy groups focused on addiction in families that many find helpful.
If someone you love is addicted to drugs and/or alcohol you are faced with a problem that no one person can overcome. We implore you not send the addict into the fray alone; he needs you. A woman once said: “Is your son’s life worth a few hours a week?” When it’s put in those terms, the decision gets real simple, real quick.
Remember this about you doing your work, not theirs: when families come together, the addict has a better chance of staying clean and the family has a chance at healing. Take the leap and get involved. You will be grateful you did!