Getting sober is hard! Family members don't always understand the role that they play!
|Getting sober is difficult! It is difficult for the individual struggling to find a new sober way of living and a healthy sense of self. It is also difficult for their family members who have loved, supported, and at times tried to force them to be different. Addiction is a disease that impacts every member of the family and all family members must change if this "recovery" is to take place.|
As a family therapist I have heard loved ones say I'm not the one who did this to our family and after everything I've been through, I'm not changing until I'm sure that he or she is going to stay sober! While these statements are understandable, they belie the belief that the ones who need to change are the ones with active addictions. It is their expectation that the loved one's journey to recovery will resolve their family struggles and allow the family to return to a "normal" way of being. For these families it is important to recognize that how the family has adapted to deal with the loved one's active addiction is the "new normal" and that a return to a more functional way of being will require each member of the family to change. They must also know that even small changes in one family member can send reverberations through family patterns and that based on this "new normal," changes the recovering individual perceives to be positive may be perceived by family members as being negative. These changes often result in significant and unexpected emotional and interpersonal conflict.
There is an old saying in family therapy that if one member of a family system begins to change, the other family members will also begin to change. While this is partially correct, it misses the reality that there are multiple other potential outcomes that can take place. As stated before, it is a common belief by family members that the individual in addiction treatment is the one with the problem and that they are going to treatment to get "their" addiction issues treated (i.e., fixed). Unfortunately, we have come to recognize that the most successful patients are part of families that support their loved ones recovery by recognizing the role that their own behaviors, feelings, and expectations have played in sustaining their loved ones addiction When whole families don't embrace recovery together, we often see two other opposing outcomes.
The first outcome is often evident when family members maintain the belief that they are not the one with the problem and, therefore, have no need to change. In this scenario it is important to remember that the individual in early recovery has begun a process of cognitive, behavioral, and relational change. They have taken the time to investigate and assess how these personal issues have influenced their interpersonal relationships. As they change, the roles that they played within their family of origin begin to feel unhealthy and a different level of autonomy emerges as a necessary component of their ongoing recovery. This autonomy is often experienced by family members as a message of rejection and over time it results in increased conflict, emotional hurt, and feelings of rejection on both sides. As this conflict increases, the recovering family member is faced with a dilemma. He or she can either reject recovery or attempt to be sober while engaging in behaviors that will relieve the growing family "dis-ease." In either event, the individual will ultimately engage in relapse behaviors and re-engage in the old behaviors that allowed them to fit within the existing family rules and roles. While the family is not happy with the return to active addiction, the system returns to the "new normal" (i.e., balance).
The second outcome also takes place when the addicted family member embraces recovery and their family members choose not to do the same. In this scenario, the recovering individual begins to recognize that he or she is less likely to remain sober within a family that continues to expect them to be sober, but to think, feel, and act as they did before their addiction. These interactions often cause the person in early recovery to feel pressure to be who their family members need them to be, rather than who they are becoming in the recovery process. From a family perspective, these expectations are often the result of the trauma they have experienced as a result of their loved one's addiction and their ongoing attempts to maintain safety through reduced trust, hypervigilance, and a need to feel in control. It may also be associated with family members experience of growing up in an addicted family or their own personal experiences of traumatic events. Unlike the scenario above, the recovering addict rejects the compulsion to try to fit into the family system and begins a process of pulling away. Often, this individual seeks shelter in their recovery community where their struggle with the difficult task of staying sober is supported, accepted, and better understood.
I realize that many families may be offended by the scenarios that I have presented in this blog. Unfortunately they are real and commonly experienced by individuals in early and middle stage recovery. It is up to each family member to reflect on the reality that addiction is a family disease with consequences for the entire family. If they are going to assist their loved one's chances in recovery, they must first shine the light on themselves. It is hoped that through this new enlightenment that they can evaluate the need for personal growth and change that promotes personal health. As each family member embraces personal growth and increased awareness, the potential for family healing and support for the recovery efforts of the addicted family member are significantly increased.