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Insights into the Rationale for Family Healing: Moving from Normal, Through the New Normal, to a Newer Normal!

In the family program provided by the Michael Barnes Family Institute @ NRT, our goal is to help families move from "we are a family with a loved one in recovery from addiction" to "we are a family in recovery from addiction and the trauma experienced by our family system." This is an important distinction, as research indicates that individuals with a chronic illness tend to manage their illness better when their family members engage in the following behaviors (Martire & Helgeson, 2017).

  • A shared family understanding. We have all been impacted and need to work together.

  • Improved communication and problem-solving skills.

  • Family ability to integrate illness management activities into family routines.

  • When families use support (encouragement) rather than pressure (nagging, guilt).

  • Family members demonstrate modeling of their efforts towards improved emotional and physical health.


When family members enter our program, they often struggle with why they are asked to change. This is often rooted in their lack of awareness of how they have been making subtle changes throughout the course of their loved one's addiction. I included a discussion of this issue in " When the Solution Becomes the Problem: Helping Families Struggling with Addiction and Trauma." I thought it might be a good excerpt to publish as a blog.


Normal, New Normal, Newer Normal (From Chapter 9, The Family Healing Process, pages 231 to 235)


Everything that happened before the onset of your loved one's struggle with addiction is what families understand as "normal." "Normal" is the status quo way of living your family created. Building a family is rooted in the histories of those involved. When two adults come together to have children, they must integrate their family systems. It's important to understand that what is considered "normal" is based on one's family history. That's why our program includes a three-generation assessment that is critical in identifying key factors that can impact the family dynamic. If your family of origin struggled with addiction and trauma in prior generations (and most have to some degree), "normal" was created to deal with chronic problems. When I inquire about people's parents and grandparents in our family program, the first response is often, "What does that have to do with anything?" My answer is, "It has everything to do with everything."


The "new normal" is comprised of two primary tasks. The first becomes necessary as the loved one's addiction progresses and family members experience increased urgency to provide support as they spiral out of control. The second is the family's renewed efforts to work, raise children, and maintain intimate relationships. In this period, the family spends 80% of their time on the loved one's addiction and 20% on other family functions. In time, the "new normal" gradually becomes routine and is carried out with little recognition of how much the family organization focuses on the troubled family member. Issues like enabling, hypervigilance, and control become the norm.  


Finally, the "newer normal" will consist of changes families make as they accept the need for family recovery. The "newer normal" is created when family members stop believing the family member in treatment or who needs to be in therapy is the person in the family with the problem. When family members embrace family healing, they remove the "identified client" and recognize the changes, growth, and healing they must own. These systemic changes create growth and healing that maximize their loved one's opportunity for long-term recovery (see research above).

As we begin, please remember a statement made earlier in this book. Where you put your attention is where you put your energy, and where you put your energy is what you create. Creating a "newer normal"—family healing—requires changing where you place your attention. I am asking you to fight the impulse to focus on your loved one and focus more on your thoughts, feelings, and behavior.


I like to use the example of skiing in the mountains on a narrow path through the trees. The impulse is to focus on the danger, the things that can hurt you - the trees. Seasoned skiers will tell you the safest way to ski through trees is to focus on the gap between the trees. You must focus on where you want to go to achieve your goal successfully! 


Up to this point in the book, I have been providing information that has the potential to create new insights and, thus, new solutions. As an addiction counselor and family traumatologist, I will discuss the issues that most families wrestle with. I hope you will benefit from my perspective on addiction and trauma and how both have a historical (and present moment) influence on family coping. There is no blame or shame intended in my presentation of these issues. Please step back from your existing perception of the problem to recognize new insights, explanations, and opportunities.


As far as the newer normal is concerned, like anything you desire to change, learning more about it is the prerequisite for action. New insights stimulate new solutions. New solutions allow for new actions. New actions allow for different relationships. Different relationships promote family healing. Thus, we're discussing creating new insights, solutions, and relationships. Readers may want me to tell them what to do, but change is complicated. It doesn't begin at the action level (or not only there). It starts at the perception level, the understanding level. 


When one person in a family is newly sober, their relationships change. Picture two magnets: the first moves farther away as you push one closer to the other. Even with a desire to heal, if everybody stays the same, there is a natural inclination to maintain distance. You have experienced hurt so often that it is hard to trust the changes your loved one has made. Healing involves changing the polarity in a family to allow for a positive and a negative charge. As family members can interact genuinely with one another, the magnets can once again attract. Change allows for relationships to flourish. And that's predicated on parallel growth.


Citations

Barnes, M. F. (2023). When the Solution Becomes the Problem: Helping Families Struggling with Addiction and Trauma. Barnes Education and Consulting, LLC, 231-235.


Martire, L. M., and Helgeson, V. S. (2017). Close Relationships and the Management of Chronic Illness: Associations and Interventions. American Psychologist, 601-612,



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