For families in addiction, every day is a challenge. Even more so in the middle of a pandemic. Often family members are afraid to share with anyone outside their immediate circle, and if they do, they are often bombarded with “detach with love!” and “stop enabling!” and “you need to fix yourself!” These messages can increase shame, isolation, confusion and make life even harder.

There’s another option. To get there let’s first break down the myths of codependency.

Myth #1 Codependency is a psychological disease.

Despite nearly 400 books written about codependency, the term is nowhere to be found in the most important book: the DSM-V, i.e. the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is the bible of psychiatric and psychological illness. In other words, codependency is popular pop psychology but not validated by rigorous scientific study. Although some family members may have disorders that are in the DSM, they are treatable and don’t require you to attend meetings for the rest of your life.

Myth #2 There’s an agreed upon criteria for codependency.

In grad school I took a course on “codependency.” The only thing I remember is that on the first day the instructor handed out a paper with over 15 definitions of codependency. I could never understand why I was taking a 3 credit hours course on a subject without an agreed upon definition. There still isn’t one, which again accounts for why it’s not classified in the DSM.

Myth #3 I’m codependent because I love too much.

My heart breaks every time I hear someone say this. We don’t love too much, but we may love imperfectly, ineffectively, and sure we screw up from time to time. That goes along with being human. Love is the glue that holds a family together not something that creates a problem. If a family member had any other kind of chronic issue — pick one— cancer, sickle cell, autoimmune disorders, diabetes, would you constantly worry that you were loving them too much? I hope not.

Myth #4 There’s something wrong with me or he/she wouldn’t drink/use.

You do not obtain a pathological condition because a family member has an addiction. Does their drug abuse affect you tremendously? Absolutely. Addiction affects every member of the family. But that doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. The overwhelming majority of family members are responding normally to a very abnormal and stressful situation. And remember we’re talking about a label that is not a recognized disease.

Myth #5 I need to detach with love and wait for him to hit rock bottom.

The notion that if a family member “detaches” their loved one will instantly go, “oh wait, Mom/Dad/Spouse is detaching, so I better get my shit together and stop using!” ignores what we know about the human brain and in particular someone in addiction. Substances abusers need healthy relationships in order to achieve sobriety. But they are mired deep in shame and self-hate. So when their family detaches from them, what do you think will be their first response? It will be more shame, more self-hate, and more using. Losing that lifeline makes things worse and less likely to engage in treatment. When family members detach, it is a sign that they have exhausted their communication skills.

And by the way, “rock bottom”— that’s death. Stopped kidding yourself it’s some magical place where everyone wakes up and immediately decides to change their behavior. As long as someone is alive, things can always get worse. For more on this, read my blog Rock Bottom the Inconvenient Truth.

But wait, you say, “what about boundaries and self-care?” Great question, and both are extremely important. But what if you could establish boundaries, strengthen self-care and engage with love instead of detaching? Engaging with love is the language we know and understand. We are social animals and detaching is inherently unnatural.

Engaging with love

The truth is that family members are in a unique position to invite change. I hear all the time, “you can’t make someone change!’ Of course, these same people say, “send them treatment so they can change them” or “send them to AA so they can change them.”

But what if family members can learn communication skills, some of the very same skills providers use? And what if they can learn to employ these skills and focus on self-care at the same time?

Turns out they can. You don’t need a 4 year or postgraduate degree. You do need patience, a willingness to practice these skills and accept the reality that change is a process that doesn’t always move at a consistent and predictable pace.

It’s about combining science with kindness, as described in the book Beyond Addiction. I trained with the lead author Jeffrey Foote and his colleague Ken Carpenter. That training felt like home. Unlike the codependency model, which seemed entirely unnatural, the Invitation to Change (ITC) model emphasizes compassion in conjunction with evidence-based science, not pop psychology.

Here’s what I mean. A study comparing the effectiveness of moving a loved one into treatment showed a 9% success rate with the Al-anon approach, 30% with intervention, and 67% with CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training), the centerpiece of the ITC approach.

The ITC model added Motivational Interviewing and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, two powerful evidence-based approaches to their regimen.

With the appropriate coaching, family members can learn these communication skills and help move their loved one through the stages of change and into the proper level of treatment. No detaching. No rock bottom. Just love and science. Doesn’t that make a lot more sense?

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About the Author: Mark Levine
I’m a Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor- Certified Supervisor, Life Coach, and Founder of Minds at Peace LLC. I’m also a playwright and composer, having recently premiered the rock musical “Higher”, a unique perspective on addiction, stigma, and the opioid crisis.

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