Published on October 15, 2021

young woman comforts a friendTrust Us, You're Not Alone

Bergen New Bridge Medical Center's message of hope to families affected by substance abuse

When an individual suffers from a substance abuse disorder (SUD), it doesn’t just affect them, it affects their entire family. Feelings of betrayal, guilt and of being misunderstood hit everyone.

“When families come in, they may be angry but more often feel guilty that somehow they could have done more to help.” said Michael J. Paolello, MA, LCADC, chief clinical officer, addictions treatment at Bergen New Bridge Medical Center in Paramus. “They think they did something wrong.”

Fortunately, the medical center’s substance abuse team can help. With two decades of scientific advances showing that drug addiction is a chronic disease that usually affects the entire family, the team wants those affected to know one thing — it’s not your fault.

Addiction is a Disease

Organizations — the American Medical Association (view "Understanding the Disease of Addiction" pdf ) and American Psychiatric Association (view online article "What Is Substance Use Disorder") among them — have long recognized alcohol and drug addiction as treatable, curable diseases. Additionally, substance abuse treatment has evolved over the past decades. It is now a subspecialty that includes highly trained and experienced counselors and physicians.

But despite these advances, SUD still carries a stigma. When patients begin treatment, many feel as though they have hit rock bottom, that they are a failure, Paolello said. It’s a position patients never thought they would be in.

“Nobody ever said when they were younger, ‘I want to check out that detox center when I get older,’ ” Paolello said. “When you’re 18, you have no idea that you’ll need a detox center at 24.”

A patient’s family members also struggle with a loved one’s SUD, sometimes feeling betrayed or angry, and even guilty that they didn’t or couldn’t help.

“We need to start thinking of substance use disorders as medical illnesses, which they are,” said Gian Varbaro, MD, chief medical officer at Bergen New Bridge. “Families also need to see substance abuse this way.”

A Learning Process

Paolello and Dr. Varbaro say that to counteract the misconceptions and stigma around substance abuse, families should get involved. One way to do that is to attend a self-help support group for family members of patients with an SUD, such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon , Dr. Varbaro said. The groups are similar to Alcoholics Anonymous and provide a local venue in which individuals who struggle with a loved one’s SUD can share their experiences. Al-Anon or Nar-Anon are venues in which family members learn more about their loved one’s SUD, how to confront it, and can get support to feel less alone.

Families also can attend weekly group sessions at Bergen New Bridge with a licensed substance abuse counselor, and them medical center partners with Integrity House, a leading provider of substance use disorder treatment. In addition, the medical center’s Recovery Center , which is targeted toward patients considering addiction therapy, also is open to families who know or suspect a loved one has a problem.

However, while family involvement is important, a patient may not want them involved in early SUD treatment, and it should not be forced on the patient, Dr. Varbaro said.

For Families: Recovery Do’s and Don’ts

For families who are just beginning the recovery journey with a loved one, Paolello and Dr. Varbaro offer these “dos and don’ts:”

Do be ready for change. It may take some adjustments to reduce the risk of a relapse. Things such as not serving alcoholic beverages during gatherings and keeping them out of the household entirely may be required,

Do attend meetings. Encourage regular attendance at meetings — Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous for the patient, Al-Anon/Nar-Anon for family members.

“Don’t accept excuses for non-attendance,” said Paolello. “These meetings are known to work,” he said.

Don’t be cruel. Be patient and try not to be critical or express frustration over a loved one’s SUD. Comments such as “It’s about time you did something about your problem” can derail recovery efforts. Try instead to build the patient’s self-esteem.

“When patients begin treatment, they are typically at their lowest point,” Paolello said. “They feel as though they’ve failed themselves and their family.” From that point, he adds, physicians and counselors work on “building the patient up” through praise and positive reinforcement.

Do be encouraging. Be positive instead and say things such as “You’re taking the right steps,” “We’re so proud of you for doing this,” and “I know this won’t be easy, but we’re behind you all the way,” Dr. Varbaro suggested.

Do take care of yourself. Don’t neglect yourself. Al-Anon’s core principles are designed to encourage family members to take care of themselves — both emotionally and spiritually.

How to Get Help

Many family members are shocked when they learn someone close to them has been abusing alcohol or drugs. But there are warning signs to look for so a problem can be detected sooner.

As a not-for-profit safety net facility offering comprehensive substance abuse treatment services throughout the greater Bergen County area,

Bergen New Bridge Medical Center offers immediate help to families and is a not-for-profit safety net facility. Those who call the medical center’s outpatient number, 201-967-4188, can speak to a trained substance abuse counselor immediately, who will then direct the caller toward the first steps of treatment.

“The most important advice we can offer is to call for help immediately,” Paolello said. “As soon as you think something is wrong, stop pretending everything is OK.”

Is It a Substance Abuse Problem? Watch For These Warning Signs

Drs. Paolello and Varbaro shared some early warning signs of substance abuse disorder. These signs are easy to miss.

A loved one could be abusing drugs or alcohol if he or she is:

  • Tells lies more often.
  • Neglects responsibilities at home.
  • Associates with different friends and goes to different places.
  • Gets into legal trouble, such as for disorderly conduct, reckless driving or driving under the influence.
  • Struggles with attendance and performance at school.
  • Is more fearful and anxious than usual.
  • Shows sudden mood swings and personality changes, such as angry outbursts or periods of “spaciness.”

Sudden changes in appetite and sleep habits; physical signs such as bloodshot eyes or impaired coordination; and unusual smells on breath, body or clothing also are signs that a loved one may suffer from SUD.

Another sign could be missing money or other items. “Your loved one is not a liar or a thief,” Paolello said. “It’s just that he or she is caught up in the vicious cycle of addiction. They are more often very good people in the grips of a very bad disease.

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