Expectations are a challenge when it comes to a loved one in recovery.
It’s easy to think, “They’re finally in recovery, so all should be fine, right?”
In an ideal world, that would be true. Your newly sober loved one would turn all their attention back to the family. They’d focus only on repairing all those years of suffering.
In the real world, however, the addict you love needs to focus on their sobriety at first. And, depending on their history of drug and alcohol use, this focus could require months or even years to settle into a firm foundation.
Initially, don’t expect newly recovering people to provide much in terms of amends. Instead, they need to focus on getting through one more day without using substances.
How then, does a family shaped by addiction provide support when their loved one is new to recovery? If the wounds are still fresh, how do you move forward? How do you act supportive when, inside, you still feel angry and hurt?
For starters, suspend your expectations and seek help for yourself.
Reframe your mindset and go easy on yourself
Addiction is a family disease. If you’ve been operating under the assumption only the addict needs to heal, it’s time to regroup.
Addiction takes its toll on everyone.
Infidelity, dishonesty, broken promises, legal consequences, and financial abuse all factor neatly into the active alcoholic’s wreckage. As a family member, concentrating all your energies on these injustices seems natural.
As an example, meet Alice. She agreed to share her recovery story under a pseudonym.
When Alice’s husband relapsed after many years sober, he cashed out $25,000 in the couple’s retirement savings and took a drug-using friend on a vacation to the tropics. “I was furious and beyond devastated,” says Alice. “After 20 years of marriage, I learned of the retirement withdrawal and vacation from a bank statement.”
As time moved on, however, Alice found herself compulsively thinking about her husband’s actions as her rage and frustration grew. “I couldn’t stop myself from dwelling on it,” she says. “It wasn’t until I went back to Al-Anon and therapy, that I was able to put the situation in its proper perspective,” she continues. “It still hurt, but I stopped allowing it to destroy my own sanity,” she adds.
Part of the recovery process
“When alcoholics drink, they do hurtful things, that’s part of the illness,” Alice explains. “And, when the alcoholic drinks, as the wife of an alcoholic, I intuitively go back to playing the role of the victim and martyr.”
While this doesn’t excuse the bad behavior, it does require a different set of coping skills from family members. “For my part, I will obsess about every big and little infraction,” she says. “If I’m not attending Al-Anon or therapy, I become consumed by every past and present hurt I’ve suffered at the hands of the alcoholic until my own life becomes a small dot on the radar screen.”
Alice learned that, in order to help her husband recover, she needed to process her own grief while he strengthened his sobriety.
“By staying on my side of the street, especially in the beginning of his recovery, I gave us both the space we needed to heal,” Alice continues. “He needed space to stay sober. If I had hit him with my grief in those early days after his relapse, not only would I have threatened his sobriety, but I’d also put myself in a position of being hurt again.”
For more information on the stages of recovery for an addict, the National Institute of Health: National Center for Biotechnology Information provides excellent resources.
Don’t do what you’ve always done
For anyone who hasn’t struggled with drug or alcohol addiction, it’s nearly impossible to imagine what early recovery is like. Likewise, the newly recovering addict can’t easily understand the pain experienced by the family.
Likely both family and addict will have overwhelming feelings rise to the surface. Don’t try to manage these feelings without the support of others who understand recovery from addiction.
Reach out to treatment professionals at facilities like Into Action Recovery Centers for guidance.
If you’ve lived with active addiction, chances are good you’ve found yourself on edge.
“When I opened the bank statement,” recalls Alice, “my first instinct was to confront my husband.”
Instead, Alice called a friend and member of Al-Anon. She made an appointment with a counselor trained in addiction recovery. When she couldn’t find childcare, she used Al-Anon’s phone bridge to call into a meeting and listen. She took the spotlight off her husband’s behavior and looked in the mirror.
In the end, these actions, while they felt counter-intuitive, gave her family the space and time to move back to healthy.
Alice was able to shift her perspective from victim to survivor. Instead of focusing on the damage caused by addiction, she focused on her husband’s willingness to get back on track.
“Friends in Al-Anon and professionals in addiction recovery encouraged me to share my feelings over the infidelity with safe people, but wait to share them with my husband until we were both able to face the issue squarely,” says Alice.
No one sets out to destroy their own marriage or the lives of the people they love. The disease of addiction is powerful. Without support from people who understand, it’s easy to fall into old habits that feed this family disease as opposed to bringing it out into the light of day. Like Alice, choose the light.