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A Military Family, Torn by Stress and Substance Abuse, Comes Together by Staying in FOCUS

Recently, a family came to my office struggling with poor communication and uncontrollable emotions.  Both parents felt exhausted from trying to balance the demands of military and family life, and they were having a hard time adjusting to dad’s new diagnosis of combat-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In our first training session together, the woman described feeling lonely and confused about why her husband seemed to “shut down” and not care about the family. She said she wanted her husband to stop drinking.  The man felt that his wife was exaggerating and did not completely agree with her. At this point, I provided education about risk factors and how substance abuse can sabotage relationships and family wellness and can also interrupt the healing process for PTSD. The service member explained that he just wanted to “stop the pain” but didn’t realize the drinking was a problem.

For the next several weeks, the family engaged in guided activities that helped them embrace their strengths as a family, explore the affect of substance abuse on their interactions, and take steps toward their goals of improved communication and family closeness. The family practiced ways to better recognize their feelings and reduce negative thinking.  The whole family also learned about PTSD and developed strategies to solve problems that often arise from combat-related injuries. When I described additional resources, the service member started to consider other treatment options for his drinking.

By graduation from the FOCUS program, the family was using their newly learned skills in everyday life.  Where the service member once drank to cope with stress, he and his family now used communication, emotional regulation, and problem-solving skills to overcome challenges. During our final session together, the service member announced he had enrolled in a treatment program that also addressed his PTSD. The family felt “relieved” and “hopeful.” As with so many of the families who have come through our doors, the FOCUS program empowered this family to learn better ways to cope.

Project FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress) is a program of the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED). FOCUS supports military families, including  those at risk or currently challenged with substance abuse, to identify their strengths on the way to building their own story of success. For more information about Project FOCUS, visit