Video: How Substance Abuse and Alcoholism Affects the Family

There is a common misconception that substance abusers believe. They often think “I am only hurting myself.” This is not a true belief. In fact, dependency upon chemicals causes one to behave in ways that hurt the people closest to them. It:

  1. Dominates the user’s thoughts and priorities.
  2. Occupies the user’s time, money, and attention.
  3. Deteriorates the user’s values and behavior.

What impact does this behavior have on a family? It creates constant unpredictability. Family members struggle to adapt to the unstable ways of the user:

  1. The non-user begins to develop emotional and physical problems.
  2. Family member becomes filled with anger, guilt, shame, hurt, fear, and loneliness.
  3. They can suffer from rejection, abandonment, and other forms of abuse.

The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.

Ask a Family Therapist: why do family members need treatment?

Ask a Family Therapist: why do family members need treatment?

Ask a Family Therapist

with Sunil Boodhai, MSW (RSW), BEd., manager of Renascent’s Family Care Programs, therapist and counsellor.


Q: Why do family members need treatment if a loved one has an addiction?


A: This is a frequently asked question. In fact, when I contact family members to ask if they’ve considered our Family Care Programs, and I’m often told “They’re the one with the problem, not me!” I believe in this case the family member has a point, in that they are not the one with the addiction issue. However, that point makes the dangerous assumption that if you “fix” the addict, all the issues in the family will magically disappear. Working with families of addicted people, I know this to be categorically false. Families are a system with dependent relationships. When one part of the system does not work, it affects all parts of the system.

During periods of active addiction, all members of the family develop coping strategies to deal with the the broken promises and the resulting chaos and instability, the addicted person not functioning in their familial role, the emotional manipulation, and even the verbal and physical violence.

When the addicted person recognizes that they have a problem and enters into recovery, their loved ones don’t automatically drop the survival strategies they’ve come to rely on, even though they are maladaptive.

They’re maladaptive because they take family members outside of themselves and cause them to literally forget who they are, their passions and loves, and their own concerns and pains. This occurs because the family’s focus is so heavily on the addict during active addiction, and often during recovery too.

Renascent’s Family Care Programs are designed to address these maladaptive coping strategies. Renascent shifts the family’s focus back onto themselves, where it belongs. This is why all family members of addicted persons should seek out their own treatment.

Picture walking into a dense forest. In this forest every plant is suffering. Nothing is blooming to its potential, no trees are bearing fruit. As I walk along, I choose one plant and I take it home with me. While at home in a controlled and safe environment, I provide this single plant with everything it needs to begin to grow again. However, as soon as it begins to grow, I take this plant and put it back into the same suffering and wilting forest with the hope that all the other plants will take notice and automatically know how to begin to bloom. This is an impossibility. Every plant in that forest needs its own special care so that it can begin to reach its potential again. The same can be said for families affected by addiction. Helping the addict and putting him or her back into the affected family does not make everyone magically better. Families need to move forward together in recovery. This is why Renascent treats addiction as a family disease.


To learn more about Renascent’s various Family Care Programs or to submit a question of your own, contact Sunil at or 416-927-1202, ext. 3010.

The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.

The Impact of Renascent’s Children’s Program

The Impact of Renascent’s Children’s Program

by Sunil Boodhai MSW (RSW), BEd.

I have chosen to work with children not because I believe I need to step into their lives and help them, but because their strength and resiliency is both boundless and awe-inspiring. I am in the enviable position to witness this strength and resilience as a therapist in the Children’s Program at Renascent. Children growing up in homes where addiction is present have no choice but to push their strength and resilience to the limit in order to cope and survive the challenges that come with fear, sadness, disappointment, neglect, and sometimes violence. Our concern in the Children’s Program is that a child’s resilience is used against them by the monster that is addiction. Instead of being used to create, build, and find joy, strength and resilience are used to find ways to survive, and survival becomes the norm. Survival takes the guise of perfectionism or acting out in negative ways; both serve to draw attention away from that addiction and over to the child, where attention is desperately needed. Our program’s primary purpose is to put a child’s focus back where it belongs. With the loving support of their families, children are reminded that their primary focus in life is to love, be loved, learn, and have fun.

It is my distinct privilege to see families transform as the make their way through our four-day Children’s Program, always hosted at the Wright Centre, our beautiful family treatment centre in the heart of downtown Toronto. Children nervously arrive with their parents at 9 a.m. on Thursday, not really knowing what to expect. That nervous energy is always transformed into joy and excitement by the end of their first day when children learn that addiction is a disease and they have bonded with other children who share a very similar experience. These children have usually been carrying addiction with them as a family secret and are relieved to find a place where they can speak openly with other people about this aspect of their lives. Children also learn about safe people in their lives with whom they can share their experiences and feeling (not everyone is safe), and about the 7C’s. The seven C’s state, “I did not cause it, I can’t control it, I can’t cure it, but I can help take care of myself by communicating my feelings, making healthy choices, and celebrating myself.” In this manner, children are reminded of their role and responsibilities in relation to the presence of addiction in their lives. Children are relieved to learn that none of their actions have caused an adult to use a substance (though they are sometimes given that message by the adults in their lives), there is not anything they can do to control the substance use — such as acting out or being absolutely perfect at everything — and there is no cure for the disease. Children are given a great deal of hope when they find out that there is hope even if there is no cure. They learn about abstinence-based treatment and twelve step programs and they meet counsellors and other adults who have lived long periods of time free from substances. Children are also given hope for the future when they learn about making healthy choices, not only in relation to alcohol and other substances, but to fundamental lifestyle habits as well, such as food and sleep. They also practise and learn the benefits of communicating feelings, and how essential it is to not keep their feelings bottled up inside.

By the end of our Children’s Program at Renascent, children join their adult loved ones to work on a project together. This is where they begin to practice the skills they have learned while in the program, and are gently coached through complex emotional interactions in a safe manner. It is this safety that allows children to refocus their strengths and resiliencies again. I cannot state enough how glorious a thing it is to see children make their way through the amazing process of the Renascent Children’s Program.

Sunil is the manager of Family Programs at Renascent. His is currently the lead therapist in the Children’s Program and provides individual counselling sessions for addicts, family members, families, couples and children. Sunil did his undergraduate work and MSW at Ryerson University, as well as a Humanities degree and Bachelor of Education degree at York University. He has been working as an addictions counsellor for over 12 years.

The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.

Perspective: I Grew Up in Alateen and Al-Anon

by Shannon Luders-Manuel.

Four people describe their experiences as children in the rooms of Alateen and Al-Anon and whether it helped them cope with their family member’s addiction.

My mother has attended Al-Anon religiously for as along as I can remember. She left my dad when I was three after a particularly bad physical fight, in which he slapped her around while intoxicated. We spent that night at my grandmother’s house, and the next day my mom decided we were done for good.

As a single parent, my mom took me to Al-Anon meetings on a regular basis. As a child I could never make much sense of the stories, and I also didn’t try. I was happier spending time by myself in a corner, playing cards with my stuffed dog, Dominic. The highlight of every Al-Anon meeting were the sugar cubes laid out perfectly next to the coffee machine. Aside from those delicious mouthfuls that I tried to sneak incessantly, Al-Anon always seemed like a very bleak, secret space where men and women aired grievances with the weight of the world on their shoulders.

I didn’t understand why my mom and I had to attend these meetings since we weren’t living with my father. It felt as though we were carrying a secret shame that we were reluctant to part with. My mother and I had moved on, so why did we continue to subject ourselves to a depressive atmosphere, where members couldn’t offer advice and must nod secretly when they passed each other in the grocery store? At that age, these were questions I couldn’t answer.

When I was in my early teens, membership grew at the meetings we attended, and the room next door became a makeshift childcare center. As a shy child, I disliked the daycare room even more than Al-Anon. I stayed in the back with Dominic as usual, but instead of dejected adult voices wafting through the large room, it was filled with rambunctious children who outnumbered the older teen leaders. At a later point, a structured Alateen group was formed, but it either didn’t last long or I didn’t last long in it.

During my brief time in Alateen, a “fine” boy in his late teens came to speak to us younger ones. He told us a story involving his own struggle with addiction and encouraged us to remain vigilant in our lifelong sobriety. I felt drawn to his rough-around-the-edges exterior and his frank disclosure of personal failings. After his speech, I walked swiftly up to him in the outside hallway. I took off my necklace and handed it to him, telling him the charm would keep him safe just like it had for me. He gave me a sad smile and reluctantly took my treasure. He knew I was trying to save him, even though I hadn’t yet figured that out myself.

I never saw that boy again, but it was my first clear foray into codependency. From family stories, I’ve learned that I struggled with this personality trait from a much younger age, as childhood sexual abuse led me to seek out my abuser with desperation once I thought he had moved on. However, as I thought back on my response to the boy in Alateen as an adult, I knew it came from a desire to save my father even though he was fairly absent from my life. I did heavy therapeutic work on codependency in my early 20s, and I’m thankful for that experience in Alateen, as it demonstrated my inclination to seek out broken men.

Once I became a teenager, Al-Anon began to grow on me. Whenever my mom went to the front of the room to receive her chip, I felt a sense of pride in her steadfast commitment to the group. In fact, I began to see that my own involvement should be celebrated as well, and as a result, that Al-Anon group began giving chips to children just for surviving. I received my “13-year” chip when I was 13 years old. I stopped attending Al-Anon shortly thereafter, but the chip has always remained a secret symbol of pride.

Three women shared their experiences attending either Alateen or Al-Anon in their youth. For two, the groups helped them mature into healthy adults who have broken the cycle of addiction in their families. For one, both Al-Anon and Alateen were periodically helpful but ultimately not the support system she needed.

Jessica*: “I started attending meetings at age eight.”

I began going to Alateen (actually a preteen group) when I was about eight. My mother had recently told me about her alcoholism (an act of astonishing vulnerability and bravery). I was never forced to go, but I was encouraged to go by my mother, and the enticement of the snack bar at the venue and the soda and candy to eat while there was a draw to me.

[My mom] died from cirrhosis of the liver, kidneys and stomach when she was 35. I was 13 when she died. My father really tried to do the best he could for about six months. My dad tended to drink beer and only beer. Because of this and because he is able to hold down a job, he does not think he has a problem.

From my teens until now, he drinks at a bar after work for about three to four hours and then comes home and will drink between 12 and 24 beers that night. He would not register me for high school. He would have had to either leave work early or not go to the bar after. Neither was an option. Luckily, a friend’s mom lied and said she was my guardian so I could sign up for classes. To this day, I will not call him past noon. I tend to only call him on Father’s Day, Christmas and his birthday.

I found Alateen and later Al-Anon to be helpful to me in that I could better set boundaries and see what was “normal.” I think learning as much as I could about the disease has helped me to break the chain of addiction. Alateen and Al-Anon helped me to locate healthy adults and understand what was my responsibility and what wasn’t. Just because my childhood sucked, it didn’t mean that I could use that as an excuse for my own bad choices. My advice would be to use the program to learn as much as you can, try to apply it to as many places as you can, and find healthy people to help guide you.

Maria: “Alateen wasn’t for me.”

For Alateen, I attended briefly in 1995 when I was a junior in high school. I only went twice. I have tried Al-Anon a few times on and off during my adult years.

My mother was a drug addict (heroin, cocaine, crack) and my father was an alcoholic. My stepfather was a drug addict (coke, crack) and an alcoholic. My uncle (mother’s brother), who was also my godfather who lived with us, had been an addict (benzos and opiates) and alcoholic. He died in 1994 in our apartment of an overdose.

I had a discouraging experience at Alateen. Two of the teen boys in the group showed up high and drunk to the meetings. As a teen, I was trying to escape being around inebriated people, so it was triggering to be around them in a space dedicated to venting our feelings about the addicts in our lives. During the break, the second time I went, one of the boys made sexually inappropriate comments and innuendo to me. I never went back.

One positive thing I took from it was the adult moderator. When she asked me how I was feeling and I told her I was angry, she told me that was great. She told me to scream and I did. It felt good to scream and for once to be told my feelings were valid. It’s just unfortunate that the experience with the boys undermined that and made me feel unsafe enough to not return.

As for Al-Anon, when I went I was dealing with some stuff as an adult and it was helpful for a time. Most of my family had died (including my mother), my dad had a stroke, my longtime romantic partner and I had split, and my brother was using and drinking a lot. However, I was still put off from aspects of Al-Anon that ultimately turned me away from the program.

Many of the members were also active addicts or alcoholics themselves, or in the stages of early recovery, and while I don’t begrudge them for being there too, sometimes I felt the Al-Anon meeting was functioning more as an AA meeting, and again, that was triggering for me as someone who is the only sober person in my family who was trying to be around more sober people.

I discovered that it’s important to reach out when you need support and help, but also, it’s good to know your limits and not fear being independent or alone. I realized I was stronger than I gave myself credit for, both in my ability to reach out and in my ability to also acknowledge when something was no longer helpful and assert my boundaries. You don’t have to go through it alone, but Al-Anon doesn’t have to be the definitive answer.

Julie: “I chose Al-Anon over Alateen, and it saved my life.”

I started going to Al-Anon when I was barely 17. My grandfather passed away and I chose to volunteer at the American Cancer Society. A woman who worked there asked me a series of questions and then recommended strongly that I go to a meeting, just from random conversations we had as I did stuff around the office. I volunteered every Wednesday, and I went to Al-Anon every Tuesday night, so she knew I was keeping my promise of going to meetings. I went by myself and I was the youngest member in the group.

My mother was a pretty heavy drinker from about 8 a.m. My dad tried Al-Anon but it didn’t work for him, he said. My sister tried Alateen but she said it didn’t do anything to help her feel better or different about our family situation.

Al-Anon saved my life. I would have been pregnant or some dumb guy’s wife, and I probably would never have gone to college if I didn’t feel the support of the adults in that meeting. I needed adults who didn’t hold back their truth and treated me like an equal to grow; I always felt I had to be the parent to my parents, so the love of those people helped balance out my life.

[Through Al-Anon], I learned I cared too much what people think of me. I try to people-please all the time and I felt responsible for everyone. Al-Anon has taught me to stop and consider my situation so I don’t let old behaviour patterns run my life. I preferred Al-Anon as a teenager because I felt I was a grown person for a while by the time I made it to Al-Anon, and the Alateen issues just weren’t for me.

*Names have been changed for confidentiality.

Reprinted from The Fix with kind permission. Click here to learn about Renascent’s Family Programs.

Contributors to Renascent’s Blog share their stories of addiction and recovery and/or their professional expertise.

Video: Coping with Alcoholic Parents

Calum Best, whose footballer father George Best died from alcohol related issues in 2005, and Josh Connolly, who is a recovering alcoholic and father to four children, discuss how families cope with alcoholism.

The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.

Perspective: The Children of Addiction

by Jowita Bydlowska

“You make my mom go away. You make me feel hatred,” a kid read out loud from his letter to addiction, a part of an exercise in the Children’s Program at the Renascent Treatment Centre in Toronto. He hugged his mom afterwards with such intensity, it was as if he wanted to get fused into her body, as if the hug itself could provide the kind of protection her body had provided once when she was pregnant and he lived inside her. Eventually, they broke their embrace. The Children’s Program group clapped, all the kids ran toward the table where one of the counsellors laid out snacks, the grownups tried to not look at each other as they wiped their eyes.

I first learned about this program when doing research for a children’s book I was planning to write. In the beginning, I had a hard time agreeing that kids in the program were lucky to partake in it — a trip to Disney would be much better, no? Maybe, depending if the parents were sober or not on the trip. The Renascent group was much more effective in terms of damage control because, as one of the counsellors told me, “They’ve seen their parents get high or drunk. Now they get to see them get sober.” And I was reminded that there are hundreds of families who don’t even know about such programs and there are thousands of children in the city whose parents would never recover.

What is it like to be a child of addicts? I don’t know from experience. But I’ve heard many people share in AA meetings about their upbringing and growing up in “alcoholic homes” where drinking was not unusual, where a child had to develop special skills to be able to tip-toe successfully around their parents — metaphorically and not. Those skills were not familiar to me. My parents weren’t drinkers, though I remember one party when I was seven. A friend was sleeping over and it was her parents who were partying with my parents in the living room. In the middle of the night, my mom woke me up to say she wanted to take the puppy — I got a puppy for Christmas a few weeks prior — out for a walk. She was giggling too much, her voice was different somehow, and then she picked up the fat, floppy puppy and left the room. I felt scared. The friend who was sleeping over told me it was no big deal, her mom was like that all the time.

Toronto, Canada’s Julie Elsdon-Height says, “Growing up as the child of heavy drinkers, I knew no different until I began going to friends’ homes where their parents didn’t go to a pub every night. It was a bit of a [a-ha!] moment at 10 when I realized that my friends’ houses weren’t centered around booze. I learned at a young age not to interrupt the adults’ party time, and in hindsight, I know my father’s lack of involvement fostered my feelings of unworthiness.”

My AA friend K, who also said he felt ignored for most of his childhood and who still struggles with intimacy, jokes that he has a “superpower” as a result of his parents’ alcoholism. This superpower is his exceptional sense of hearing that he’s developed, because as a child he learned to become closely attuned to the sound of the front door closing when his father would come home from work. When he’d hear the door shut carefully, exaggeratedly, it often meant that his father was drunk — it was like a performance of a door closing. My friend said that drunken arguments were better because an argument is an obvious occurrence; paying attention to how the door hinges sing is exhausting and makes you crazy.

This kind of reaction is known as hyper vigilance, which, according to one definition, is “a heightened state of awareness, a part of the fight/flight response…This state is akin to being locked into permanent ‘battle stations;’ brain resources on constant alert, causing inappropriate or even aggressive reactions in everyday situations.” My friend’s constant auditory — and otherwise — scanning of his surroundings as a child was the result of his father’s alcoholic habits and lack of consistency (there was no method to his father’s madness; the drunkenness could happen three times in a row or not for days). According to one study, for some Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), hyper vigilance can transfer into adulthood and cause an ACOA to misread verbal and nonverbal communications. This misinterpretation stems from frequently present conflict, criticism and — as in Elsdon-Height’s case — rejection during childhood; a grown ACOA might be conditioned to expect the worst. My friend said that it felt “safer” to walk around preparing to fight; he was suspicious of people’s motives all the time. And he still listens, carefully, to the sounds of doors closing wherever he happens to be.

There’s lots of research that suggests some of the ACOAs experience symptoms that indicate post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); many children learn to detach (a condition called “psychic numbing”) as the result of prolonged chaos, inconsistency, abandonment and physical abuse. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, PTSD occurs when trauma happens. “Traumatic events may include crimes, natural disasters, accidents, war or conflict, or other threats to life. It could be an event or situation that you experience yourself or something that happens to others, including loved ones.” This “trauma is often unexpected, and many people say that they felt powerless to stop or change the event.”

Children are the very definition of “powerless;” they live by the rules of the grownups around them and there is no escaping bad parenting. True, not everyone who goes through trauma of living in an alcoholic home will develop PTSD, but for some children, growing up in such an environment can have lifelong negative consequences. In these homes, children experience a daily environment of inconsistency, chaos, fear, abandonment, denial, and real or potential violence. If present, PTSD also leads to “psychic numbing,” a feeling of detachment from one’s surroundings, a mechanism learned due to the self-preservation that some ACOAs had to employ to simply survive.

According to a research paper by Tian Dayton, “The Set Up: Living with Addiction,” there are a number of other characteristics that ACOAs might present such as anxiety, depression, distorted reasoning (“convoluted attempts to make sense and meaning out of chaotic, confusing, frightening or painful experience that feels senseless”), poor self-regulation, survival guilt, high risk of becoming an addict, and more. The desire to be perfect, to be approved of and placing others’ needs before one’s own is also common with ACOAs, according to PsychCentral’s Dr. Mark Gold.

Julie Hunter of Woodstock, British Columbia, who says she’s an alcoholic and ACOA, pinpoints loss of identity as one of the results of growing up with parents who drank. “I recall coming home from a gruelling shift waitressing. [I worked] so hard my toes actually bled,” she says. Her parents were drinking when she arrived, blood leaking through her shoes, but she minimized what had happened and turned her injury into a joke meant to placate and entertain her parents. She cried in her room later on, wondering, “Who the hell was I just then? It was the first time I realized I didn’t know who the hell I was.” She says trying to be someone else contributed to the fact that she drank for most of her life. “It was a performance no less than how I performed for my parents. Alcoholism progressed. I functioned that way for many years.” She is sober now and says that it wasn’t alcohol that made her an alcoholic — it was the loss of self that made her drink in the first place.

When I read and hear the grim prognosis of alcohol’s effects on children, I feel overwhelmed with guilt. I am an alcoholic. And I am also a mom of a seven-year-old. I was hoping that my son’s exposure to my drinking wouldn’t go beyond my spectacular relapse when he was a baby — in other words, I was hoping that he would grow up with a sober mom. Alas, that’s not how it went. I broke one promise I made to him and to myself, and he has seen me intoxicated. I am sober now. And I have taken him to a place where we could work on getting our bond repaired. I have heeded the words of that counsellor: “They’ve seen their parents get high or drunk. Now they get to see them get sober.”

The ship to perfectly sober parenting sailed a long time ago, but now that I’m better, I still get a chance to repair the damage I have done. I don’t want my son to grow up unsure of what kind of mom he comes home to. I don’t want him to ever feel ignored because a bottle is more important than his needs. I can’t tell how much my drinking has affected him, but I can hope that he’ll never have to fear the sounds of the door closing. During the family program I signed up for, the kids learned to express their feelings, their grief and their anger. In one room, the kids talked about broken trust. In the other room, we, the parents, talked about how to regain that trust. Later, there were letters to the addiction. And, finally, there was a puppet play about mom coming home drunk, which was pathetically sad and funny, but mostly sad, mostly absolutely heartbreaking because of the tiny voices lending their pain to the puppets.


Reprinted from The Fix with kind permission of the author. See more of Jowita’s work at

Members of Renascent’s alumni community carry the message by sharing their experiences and perspectives on addiction and recovery. To contribute your alumni perspective, please email