One of the most difficult tasks any person recovering from an addiction has to face is talking to their loved ones about their addiction. How much do you tell them? What do you do when they demand details on every substance (some of which you might not remember or care to talk about) that you have ever used? What do you do if they don’t want to talk to you at all? Here are some practical tips that can help you navigate some potential pitfalls as you cross the bridge to rebuilding relationships.
1. You are not the best person to educate your family about addiction. Nobody knows you quite like your family, so talking to parents, siblings or even adult children about your addiction seems like the most logical course of action. It is important to remember that while you may have been in a treatment program or attending Twelve Step Recovery meetings, your family may remain uninformed or confused about the causes of addiction, effects of specific chemicals, and the effects of addiction on the family. The emotional baggage that is created when addiction is present in the family may take months to years and patient progress to resolve. There are many excellent websites, treatment centers family programs, and Twelve Step Recovery programs for family members (Alanon, Alateen) that can help them learn about addiction. Stick to very general descriptions with the caveat that the most important thing is that you are willing to take whatever actions are necessary to prevent relapse.
2. In some ways, talking to friends first may be a helpful training ground in learning how to talk to your family. Friends can often be more objective and point out potential trouble spots with the information you want to share. In Twelve Step Recovery programs (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous) and other support groups, sponsors and group members will share their experiences and coach you through those first delicate moments. Try writing your thoughts in a letter format and read it to a trusted friend. Remember that the first rule in talking to your family is to Do No Harm.
3. It is normal for your family to feel hurt, angry, or ashamed about your addiction. Your family may feel a profound sense of disappointment in you because of your addiction. It is important to let them know the anger they are feeling is completely natural and that they should feel free to talk openly about it. Families need to know that your addiction is not their fault. If emotions are still too raw on either side for discussion to be productive, professional help may be necessary. Professional counselors, psychologists, clergy, or treatment center family programs are potential options to help mediate some of the early discussions. Support groups or Twelve Step Recovery programs for family members (Alanon, Alateen) can also assist in helping family members process their emotions and learn new coping skills.
4. Explore your motivation for beginning this discussion. Are you trying to help them understand your commitment to recovery or are you trying to alleviate guilt? What are your expectations of the discussion? It is unlikely that you will find immediate or unconditional acceptance of either your sincerity or commitment towards sobriety. Avoid placing conditions on your family such as “I can’t remain sober unless you forgive me or help me get back on my feet again.” Families are used to addicts and alcoholics making unreasonable demands for time, resources, and affection as conditions for abstinence, only to see their loved continue or resume using chemicals. Remember, your continued actions towards maintaining your recovery will do more to convince your family than anything you say.
5. Learning communication skills (which means both listening and speaking) is an important part of taking action. You may not even realize that past communication styles have hindered recovery in the family. Many families experience the “elephant in the living room” phenomenon, in which everyone talks around the addict or alcoholic, while never addressing the chemical use or behaviors directly. Assertive communication involves the use of “I” statements such as “I feel angry and fearful when you do not include me in family discussions”. Remember to be patient. Family members who dealt with poor communication and difficult behaviors while you were active in your addiction may not initially appreciate your new communication skills. Practicing both listening and speaking assertively with your friends, sponsors, and support group members can again be very helpful. If you and your family continue to struggle with communication, seek professional help as mentioned earlier.
6. Continue to work a recovery program. Families may initially be resentful that someone else is able to help you remain sober when their best efforts seemingly failed. Spouses and children may not understand how important your recovery activities (support group meetings, exercise, healthy diet, working with others) are to on-going sobriety. Balance is hard to achieve in early recovery. Feedback from support group members, friends, and open discussion with families focused on needs versus wants can be helpful. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
While family relationships can be a major stressor for a newly recovery alcoholic or drug addict, they can also be great rewards for on-going sobriety. Family recovery often parallels the recovery experience for the addict or alcoholic. Allow your family to experience their own process of recovery. Your example of reaching out for help is the best gift you can give them.