New research: Family life in recovery

Dr James Nicholls | February 2018 | 7 minutes

Recovery from alcohol or drug dependency is not a journey taken alone. In very many cases, people struggling to turn their lives around do so as part of a family: as parents, children, siblings or other loved ones. It is often the family who provide the core support that enables people to sustain their recovery. But family members suffer alongside their alcohol-dependent loved one too. In this way, recovery is a shared experience.

"Recovery is a shared experience."

Family Life in Recovery, a new study released on 26 February 2018 and funded by Alcohol Research UK, explores this in detail. Based on a survey of over 1,500 family members, the research details both the impact of dependency on their lives and the benefits they experience from recovery. For the first time, we have large-scale evidence of the experience of recovery for the people close to those with alcohol problems.

Family members reported that living with an alcohol-dependent person had wide-reaching impacts on their lives. All these problems were alleviated, to some degree, as loved ones recovered. For example:

  • Mental health: over two-thirds of family members reported receiving help for emotional or mental health problems when their loved one was in active dependency, which dropped to just one-third when they were in recovery.
  • Interpersonal violence: 32 per cent were victims of family violence during their family member’s active dependency, compared with 10 per cent during recovery. Almost 5 per cent were perpetrators of family violence during their family member’s active dependency, compared with just under 1 per cent during recovery.
  • Financial problems: family members reported improved financial status when the family member was no longer in active dependency. Fewer individuals had debts, bad credit, were bankrupt and could not pay bills.

"Dependency can be isolating, but it rarely happens in isolation"

Dependency can be isolating, but it rarely happens in isolation – and families are often the environment in which problems are both experienced and resolved. The bigger picture in this research is the role of the family in understanding and tackling problematic substance use.

Families are not just the context for much recovery, but can also be a resource for recovery. Treatment interventions often focus on the individual, but families can play a decisive role in providing the love and support someone needs to sustain their recovery – and are far more likely to be able to do so if they receive support and guidance alongside the their loved one.

This is not to say that families are responsible if things go wrong, or that continuing dependency is their fault. Indeed, the sense of failure and helplessness that family members can face in these situations is something charities such as Adfam, Al-Anon and DrugFam work hard to address. But rather a focus on the role of families in recovery is essential if we are to develop holistic approaches that can improve the effectiveness of treatment.

It has been encouraging to see families becoming the subject of political interest. Recent work by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Children of Alcoholics has drawn attention to the impact of parental dependence on children – impacts that can continue long into adulthood. In 2017, Alcohol Awareness Week focussed on families, and highlighted the need for effective family support.

"The goal is improved well-being for a wider community of people than the drinker alone."

It is now time for us to start thinking about recovery in these broader terms: not as a solitary experience, but as a series of interweaving journeys in which challenges overlap (and sometimes clash), but where the goal is improved well-being for a wider community of people than the drinker alone.