Supporting Your Loved One Through Recovery
During the 30+ years that I’ve been a therapist, it’s a rare case that family members are equally involved in the recovery process. Typically, other family members sit back and watch the recovering person go to treatment, meetings, and therapy — after all, the addict is the one with the problem. Rather than getting involved, some people even resent the time the addict invests in getting better. The concept that the addict is the “sick one” has been fostered by the kind of treatment that delegates a fraction of the program to significant others.
Addiction is a family illness, and everyone is affected by the disease. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and a family is a chain that needs all links to be strong. When each person is operating from the same playbook with new and healthier rules, trust and cohesion can be rebuilt. Even more important, each member will learn to replace loving behavior with old self-destructive behavior that keeps the family in a dysfunctional state.
Five Steps for Family Healing
1. Work Through Old Hurt and Pain — This is best addressed first in therapy (alone) and then with the other person. It’s only natural that there will be unresolved feelings, but venting those feelings on the person who is practicing abstinence will not produce positive results. Meetings, journaling, prayer, and therapy are the place to release all toxic emotions and to find the freedom to be yourself again.
2. Be Vulnerable — When you discuss your feelings, talk about yourself while avoiding an attack. For example, “When you use to come home late at night (or not at all), it was terrifying. I wondered if you were dead or alive, or if you were having an affair. I couldn’t sleep at night, and during the day, I couldn’t concentrate. It was as though something had hijacked our relationship. I’m scared of that happening again, and I don’t want to lose you.”
3. Be Positive — For every statement of what bothers you, precede it with a positive one. For example, “I’m so glad you’re getting help, I can see how hard it is to make such a life change. When I can’t reach you during the day, I get that old panicky feeling. Until I learn to feel safe again, could you stay in contact with me?” It’s easy to get on the rails of negativity, and it requires effort to be positive. You have to decide what you stand for and which type of marriage you’d like to have: bickering and resentful or loving and forgiving. One will bring you pain, the other joy.
4. Separate the Addiction from the Person — There are two parts to everyone’s mind — the part that knows the right thing to do and the other part that does the wrong action. Someone addicted has listened to the wrong voice more than the right voice, but that is not who they are. If you can recognize that you can trust the person you love and distrust their addiction, you can strengthen that healthy part in both of you. For example, “I love you, and (name what you love about the person), it’s the addiction that scares me. It seems to creep up out of nowhere and turns that sweet, kind, reliable person into a dishonest, deceitful person.”
5. Be the Recovery That You Want — Families that grow together are far more likely to have satisfying relationships. When everyone sits back and watches the recovering person do all the work, it’s a set-up for failure.
There’s a 12-Step program (Al-Anon) for family members and (Alateen) for kids. Be the kind of family member who is willing to go to the same lengths you expect of the addict. Only then will you have a real understanding of the courage it takes to face demons and change deeply ingrained patterns. Addiction is a family illness. No one remains unscathed without help.
If you have been the one holding down the fort at home, with kids, friends, etc., it seems logical that you are fine and the other person has the problem. Regardless of how true this feels, there’s always room for self-improvement. John didn’t want to go to Al-Anon when his wife got sober, and he was embarrassed that his reputation would be affected. But once he attended a few meetings, he learned new tools to cope and developed a better understanding of what his wife was learning in AA. The 12-steps gave them a platform for self-reflection and healing.
Sally didn’t want to go to therapy or do anything else concerning addiction recovery. She thought NA for her husband, Bob, was enough. At her husband’s urging, she grudgingly went to therapy and subsequently recognized she had an addiction to sugar. At first, she was angry, but then she realized how she’d been focusing on her husband’s drug use while she was self-medicating with chocolate and candy. She decided to go to her own 12-step program, lost weight, and started a regular exercise routine. The better Sally felt about herself, the more supportive she was of her husband. She also developed compassion for Bob and the work involved in arresting addictive behaviors.
Burt’s kids mumbled and grumbled all the way to their first Alateen meeting. But half-way through, they became calm and listened. For the first time in their lives, they felt someone understood what they felt and what they’d been going through. Relief came when they learned they did not cause or cure the problem and that they had no control over the addiction.
Jeremy went to Smart Recovery to stop drinking and smoking. When his partner started attending meetings with him, the friction was significantly reduced. They were able to share a cognitive approach to healing addiction. This reduced their blaming and bickering as they learned to address problems from a rational perspective and no longer be at the effects of reactive thoughts.
When a family grows together, it not only feels good, life gets all-around better. Like any team, when everyone works at self-improvement, participants become winners. Addiction is a formidable opponent. If, when you focus on your loved one, you redirect that energy back to changing something about yourself, you will be a strong team-member as well as an inspiration to others.