Eating Disorder & Addiction Recovery…It’s a Family Affair

A lot of women come to residential treatment for addiction, eating disorders, and unresolved issues with trauma, mood disorders, and more. Although it may be a single individual (the “identified patient”) who enters treatment, and engages in intensive therapy, we know they are not the only ones who need help.

Eating disorders, addiction, and other mental illness are family diseases. Every member of the family is also affected and to some degree suffering. Treating the identified patient without addressing the disease in the family not only yields poor long-term results for the identified patient, but also misses the profound opportunity for healing the family as a whole. In a healthy family, everyone has a role – care-taker, family clown, lost child, scapegoat, and family hero.

Children also have roles, usually appropriate with their ages. Roles often change and evolve as children grow up. For the most part, the system works. However, when a parent is struggling with alcoholism or a child has a heroin addiction — roles become intensified as the system tries its best to metabolize the unmanageability that comes with active disease in the family. The child becomes an adult to take care of an impaired parent, or the parents focus all their attention on the drug-addicted child, leaving other children feeling unimportant. The end result is an entire family, not just one person, becomes sick to some degree. As the identified patient receives treatment and moves toward recovery, other family members also need to be heard, helped, and healed.

Often times, in addition to the identified patient, others in the family also struggle with an addiction, eating disorder or mood disorder. While a teen is in treatment for an addiction to prescription medication, a parent may be at home lost in a liquor bottle every night. Or, a daughter may come to treatment with a life-threatening eating disorder, while her mother remains at home endlessly counting calories, weighing herself daily and exercising to an unhealthy extreme. These family members desperately require treatment. Moreover, as far as we are concerned, it makes no sense to return anyone trying to achieve recovery into such a family environment that has not changed. This would be considered a “set up to fail” situation.

Although it might be difficult to imagine, there are cases when a family member consciously or subconsciously sabotages another’s recovery (for example, keeping alcohol in the house when an adolescent with alcohol dependence returns home). Family systems like many other living things in nature achieve to maintain the status quo, the familiar—even when that which is familiar is the disease.

When an addiction, mental illness and even severe physical illness occur, the family as a whole suffers. The longer the suffering is present, the worse the damage. It can take the form of deep wounds, complete communication breakdown, physical or sexual abuse, and broken relationships.

Families riddled with addiction, eating disorders and associated illnesses become enshrouded in shame, secrecy, resentment, and blame. These issues need to be addressed while the identified patient is in residential treatment. With quality therapy, the family can begin anew, and work to let go of the weighty past issues and hurt feelings. When addiction and eating disorders are addressed as family illnesses, with each of the individuals receiving support and the family as a whole receiving treatment, the chances for life long recovery for the identified patient and the entire family are greatly improved.