Family Support Is For Men Too

Living with someone who has a substance use problem is stressful. And over time, it is likely to have an impact on your health and wellbeing. This is true for everyone, but how we react and deal with it does seem to vary – especially for men.

It is often suggested that, for a variety of commonly understood socio-cultural reasons, men may be less likely to recognise emotional and psychological distress in themselves and less likely to seek treatment. The stereotypes claim women are more comfortable talking about their emotions and sharing their troubles with others while men internalise their thoughts and anxieties. These are fairly crude generalisations though and not everyone conforms to this.

Many years ago, when our son was preparing to go into residential rehab, my wife and I were invited to attend an associated family support group. To be honest, my initial response was ‘no thanks’. I felt our lives were so dominated by our son’s substance use that the last thing I wanted was to drive 20 miles to a weekly evening meeting to spend more time talking about it. But I did recognise that my wife’s mental and physical health was seriously compromised. She needed help and, because she doesn’t drive, I agreed to go along with her just to see what it was like.

We were confirming the assumptions commonly made about men. However, it proved to be a turning point in both our lives which led to us starting up our own support group in our hometown and me becoming Chair of Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs and the Families Lived Experience representative on the Drug Deaths Taskforce. So, what happened?

From the very first meeting, we felt like a weight had been lifted off our shoulders and that we were able to speak honestly and openly about our experiences. We realised we were not the only ones secretly suffering and quickly developed a bond with the other members of the group as we all felt safe to share personal and often painful thoughts and experiences. The group we attended in Edinburgh was facilitated by a man and, although there were times when I was the only other man present, I felt reassuringly comfortable – we hardly missed a meeting for several years.

I think the key factor is not feeling judged, whatever you say or do. The other members of the group understand the dilemmas you are facing, and the impact a loved one’s problems have on you and your relationships with your family, friends, and colleagues. I learned a lot about the nature of addiction which helped me to better understand my son’s behaviours. I’ll always remember being told about the 3 Cs for the first time: you didn’t cause it; you can’t control it and you certainly can’t cure it. What a revelation that was!

That explained the feelings of guilt, frustration, and inadequacy. But we also heard about and met people who had recovered, which gave us hope.

We were introduced to the SMART Recovery, Families and Friends Handbook and, encouraged and supported by our facilitator, we trained as facilitators which let us start our own support group. The programme is based on Dr Robert Meyers’ CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) which Scottish Families regularly offer courses in. I found this very helpful because it provides support and tools to develop more effective coping strategies, lessen feelings of isolation. It focuses on solutions that will make our lives better and happier and instil a sense of hope. The materials introduced me to the principles of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy and my ‘man brain’ responded enthusiastically. It seemed my unconscious strategy of avoiding confrontations, not ‘catastrophising’ and trying to limit feelings of guilt and anger was not necessarily a sign of weakness. I had a lot to learn about other things though, like setting boundaries and communication skills.

We ran our support group for about 4 years, and it was very rewarding to see the positive impact it had on a lot of very distressed and demoralised people, including quite a few men. Some of them were, like me, initially not entirely convinced that it was a good idea but, after a few meetings, quickly changed their view and became stronger, more knowledgeable and very supportive members of the group. A ‘mutual aid’ meeting means that we are all able to support each other – that is probably the greatest strength of the group. It may not be right for you, individual counselling might suit you better, but I strongly advise anyone who is struggling to cope with their loved ones’ substance use to seek support (Scottish Families can provide help and advice about what’s available in your area) and share your load with at least one other person. I’m convinced, regardless of gender, you won’t regret it.

By Colin Hutcheon, Chair of Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs 

If you are worried about someone else’s alcohol or drug use, we are here to listen and to help. You can contact our team on 08080 10 10 11, or use the webchat on our website.

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