Recovery for Family Members at the Harborview Recovery Center :: Resurrection Health Care

Recovery for Family Members

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If you have a loved one who is struggling with chemical dependency, you long for the time when he or she will get help and begin to heal. When they do, you're likely to feel a sense of relief and renewed hope for the future. Hopefully, these feelings will continue throughout the recovery process. But often, complicated feelings arise, and family members find themselves in need of support.

At Harborview Recovery Center, we understand the challenges faced by the families of our patients. Our counselors and addiction specialists can answer your questions, help you work through complex feelings and adjust to new circumstances. We know that people with chemical dependencies can heal -- and so can their families.

Sources: Mary Ann Amodeo/Join Together 2005; The Partnership for a Drug Free America, "Recovery for Family Members"

Common Questions and Concerns for Families

  1. We're having trouble adjusting to recovery. What do we do now?
  2. Are there typical problems that families face?
  3. How can our family be healthy again?
  4. Do I need to stop drinking or using drugs myself?
  5. Should I find out what the person in recovery is doing to stay abstinent, or should I mind my own business?
  6. Can we keep liquor in the house? Should we avoid all parties or gatherings where there might be alcohol or other drugs?
  7. Is it normal to feel distrustful?
  8. What should we do if relapse occurs?

We're having trouble adjusting to recovery. What do we do now?

First, you can feel proud that your loved one has undertaken this formidable process. Second, remember that this phase is almost always full of challenges -- both for the person in recovery and the family.

It's common to feel like strangers to one another. Your loved one may seem to have a different personality -- more serious, more careful, more private -- making you uncertain about how to relate. You may be wary of sharing responsibility (i.e. handing over the checkbook, loaning the car) and feel guilty about it. You may resent that your loved one attends a lot of meetings and seems more interested in a new group of recovering peers.

Remember that people in recovery are constantly adjusting. They are probably eager to regain a place in the family, so they may not show their anxiety, guilt, shame or uncertainty, but instead may act stone-faced or stoic, putting themselves under great pressure. It may also help to know that your loved one is as frightened of relapse as you. People in recovery may have frequent urges to drink or use drugs and feel guilty about it -- even though these urges are a normal part of recovery. And in spite of their -- and your -- best efforts, relapse is common. You need to work together to anticipate high-risk situations and plan ways to prevent them.

Consider attending family counseling or a 12-step group together. Recovery is a major adjustment for all family members (children and adolescents, as well as adults), and group or professional support can make this transition and adjustment easier.

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Are there typical problems that families face?

Every family is different, but there are some common experiences:

  • Feeling tense, like you're waiting for your loved one to relapse.
  • Having difficulty trusting your loved one.
  • Feeling guilty about not trusting your loved one.
  • Awkwardness and self-consciousness with one another -- a sense of not knowing the rules for "living in recovery."
  • The appearance of a set of unspoken rules -- such as "don't say or do anything upsetting," "don't talk about problems," "don't let feelings out in the open because they lead to conflict," or "recovery is more important than all other family needs."
  • Resenting your loved one for attending lots of support meetings and not being around to help with household chores, child care or other family business.
  • Returning to old, negative behaviors to achieve balance -- such as spying on your loved one, starting arguments for no reason or making decisions without including him or her. Some family members may continue to withhold responsibility, recognition for accomplishments and respect the recovering individual.
  • Dreading that your loved one will relapse and the family will have to deal with the problem all over again. This can ultimately put the recovering individual in the most powerful position in the family and cause other family members to feel slighted or neglected.

Generally, families can overcome these behaviors with help. However, for some, the stress of adjustment may be too much -- they may be unable to see the recovering person as someone who is moving in a positive direction. In such cases, your loved one may need to live away from the family during the early recovery period to establish independence, solidify an identity as a recovering person and demonstrate to the family that change has really occurred.

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How can our family be healthy again?

There are many options that can help you through the recovery process together:

  • Join a Support Group at a Social Service or Mental Health Agency - One way to help your family recover is to attend family counseling led by a professional who is an expert in addiction.

    Some counselors may run sessions with multiple families. Such groups may help you feel less isolated and alone. It can be comforting to know that everything you've experienced has happened to other group members. And if you're feeling distant from other members of your own family, you may be able to establish bonds with others in the group. In addition, multi-family groups can be instrumental in learning to keep an open mind about the your loved one's ability to improve.

    We can refer you to the appropriate resources. Or you can find a counselor through a referral from your health care provider or by searching online for local social service, mental health or family counseling facilities.
  • Attend Al-Anon - You can attend Al-Anon and other 12-step meetings that use group support and the power of example for recovery. Al-Anon is specifically for family members of people with alcohol problems. Groups are led by recovering family members and can help you learn to put your own needs first -- at least once in a while. (This is frequently the only way families can pay attention to their own goals and "recovery.")

    We can refer you to a good program in the area. You can also participate in the Al-Anon meetings held at Harborview Recovery Center [days, times, here]. We can tell you about the program's philosophy, others will talk about their own experience as program members and meeting formats. We can also help address special needs and concerns -- such as difficulties arising from child care, physical challenges or sexual orientation.
  • Attend Family Therapy Sessions - Family therapy focuses on improving relationships and sustaining sobriety. It can also help you work on more direct communication.

    Therapists suggest ways to improve family relationships -- perhaps by spending more time together or, in cases where relationships are too intense, by encouraging you to spend time apart. They may also suggest "homework" in which you are asked to keep a record of caring behaviors by one another, so they can see the positive aspects of your relationship.

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Do I need to stop drinking or using drugs myself?

Many experts recommend that all family members abstain from all substance use for the first three months of recovery to avoid triggering a relapse. If you do not want to stop, ask your loved one if that decision is upsetting. Some recovering people find it very hard to be close -- physically and emotionally -- to someone who uses alcohol or drugs.

Also, if family members do not take the step to abstain from drinking and drugs, they should reevaluate their own drinking and drug use because they too may have a problem.

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Should I find out what my loved one is doing to stay abstinent, or should I mind my own business?

You are entitled to know what your recovering family member is doing to remain abstinent -- primarily because failure to do so can have a profound effect on the safety and wellbeing of the entire family.

Keep in mind that abstinence and treatment are the responsibility of the person with the addiction, and he or she deserves the privacy to work on these issues in his or her own way. That means resisting the temptation to put your loved one under surveillance. If you repeatedly ask about treatment progress in an intrusive or controlling way, it can create stress and tension -- and may lead to hostile responses or rebellious behavior.

Inviting your loved one to talk about experiences, without pressure, can be quite supportive. Examples of helpful questions or comments from family members are:

  • I'd be interested in hearing how your meetings are going, if you feel like talking about them.
  • Do you like the other participants? Do you feel you have something in common with them?
  • Are the facilitators/coordinators helpful? Do they offer good advice?
  • Are you finding that recovery is a struggle for you, or is it going pretty well so far?
  • If you feel the treatment is not working that well, would you like help in investigating other ones?
  • Are there things we, the family, could do to make it easier for you to attend sessions?

Keep in mind, if your loved one refuses to engage in activities that support and protect abstinence, there should be consequences. For example, you may need to consider asking your loved one to temporarily move out, or you may need to cut off contact and resources until he or she returns to the recovery process.

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Can we keep liquor in the house? Should we avoid all parties or gatherings where there might be alcohol or other drugs?

Different families handle this in different ways. It's best to have an open discussion with all family members about what works best for everyone, and ask the recovering person directly:

  • Should I keep beer in the basement for company or get rid of it and just serve soft drinks?
  • Would you prefer to stay home or go to the party with us?
  • Should I avoid having a glass of wine when you're around?
  • What should I tell the relatives?
  • If your friends show up with alcohol or drugs, should I tell them to get lost or do you want to handle it yourself?

Don't assume anything. Your loved one has a right to participate in decisions, especially those that directly impact his or her recovery.

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Is it normal to feel distrustful?

Yes. You may not trust your loved one and will feel guilty . And since relapse is common, only time will tell whether your loved one can be trusted. In general, a person is considered to be at high risk for relapse during the first year. The risk begins to lesson in the second and third years.

Sometimes families return to past negative behaviors, like spying on the recovering person, starting arguments for no reason or making decisions without him or her. Even if the person has earned trust over many months, the family may refuse to give him or her more responsibility, recognition for accomplishments and respect.

For help coping with distrust and other common concerns, you can join a support group at a social service or mental health agency or attend an Al-Anon or other 12-step meeting. Again, we will be happy to provide the right community resource. For many, these groups are instrumental in understanding that it's okay not to entirely trust your loved one in the early months of abstinence, but that it's critical to keep an open mind about the ability to improve.

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What should we do if relapse occurs?

Most treatment programs and support groups help patients identify situations that will put them at risk for relapse and plan for ways to avoid getting into such situations. You can help by asking your loved one about those high-risk situations and whether you can do anything to help avoid them.

Although relapses are not inevitable, they are common. Many people have one or more relapses before achieving long-lasting sobriety or abstinence, If your loved one relapses, do not interpret it as the end of the recovery effort. Both the recovering individual and the family should resume participation in a support group and/or professional counseling as soon as possible.

Experts have found that a relapse can serve as an important opportunity for learning. Focus on helping your loved one identify what triggered the relapse and developing strategies for avoiding it in the future.

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