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The Role of Family in Recovery

Ethnicity and cultural issues are something that we need to be very competent with because that’s going to be different for everybody and families are different for everybody.

“If you want to find out everything about yourself, find out everything about your parents, your grandparents, find out the kind of cars they liked, what kind of food they liked, all of that.”
-Alice Walker, The Temple Of My Familiar

The connection back to our parents and grandparents for us and working with families is slow steady progress.

Education for families:

  • They didn’t cause the illness
  • They can’t control it
  • They can’t cure it
  • But they CAN cope!
  • And learn new ways to connect as a family

The families that are striving to look good don’t like to talk about how hurt they are, how sad they are, how scared they are, and how angry they are. But we don’t label them, or pathologize them. Let’s talk to them as they are real people with real hurts, pains and real skills.

At Betty Ford, there’s something called the opening circle where each person addresses 3 questions:

  1. Who are you here for?
  2. What one incident during your addiction impacted you?
  3. What would you like to get out of family week?

Falling apart families are real too, their hearts have been broken, their trust has been broken. So they need to be lifted up and given some skills.

Restoring Connection in Families

A lot of people, when they come into the treatment center, are smiling, saying “I’m doing great, how are you?” and then they go home and drink themselves to death or they have an inability to
connect with their kid, or they’re making millions of dollars but they literally have no idea what their kids passions are. They’re killing themselves and we need to be honest about that. Suicide rates right now are especially high since Covid-19.

We, as humans, are innately designed to connect, especially with family. So how do we restore a sense of connection in a family where there has been substance abuse, codependency, sex addiction, eating disorders or other mental health issues?

STEP 1: Identification
If there’s a father that doesn’t recognize that they even have a problem, they may be completely disconnected. Depending on where they come from culturally, they could think, “my job as a father, the way I connect is to provide for” and not even be aware that there’s an issue. So the first step in restoring connection is to bring it to their awareness. When a family member is not aware, the counselors, therapists, or coaches can help by gently inviting them to explore in what way they see their loved one, what has happened with their loved one that they’re concerned about. And then that opens a door to the parent recognizing that there is a behavioral change that they’re concerned about.

STEP 2: Communication
The starting point to restoring connection is to be able to sit down with the family and learn to communicate. You could use something like a “feeling formula,” for example, “I felt sad when you relapsed again because it scares me to think I’m going to lose you and I wish you would get help for your alcoholism or your drug addiction.” So the person who the family member who’s speaking from using I-messages and using feeling language and non-accusatory once they learn I’m telling you once the family members start to learn that and start to practice it it does make a difference and I’m sure you’ve seen it too where that little communication starts to build trust.

Identifying Behavioral Patterns in Families

Very often, families resist going to treatment for their family members because parents especially are so worried about being blamed. When we look at all the old films and TV and books everything goes back to – in a therapeutic setting – going back to the mother, or the father, but oftentimes a mother. And that parent is now going “Oh God, okay you’re going to therapy, I know it’s all my fault.” So oftentimes they don’t want to engage. They get defensive.

Therefore it’s really important to help support the family and have everybody take a look at what their part is in the family system. How do we unknowingly perpetuate the system?

In family therapy groups, the parent can learn to talk from the I-language, for instance, “When I yelled at you and blamed you for… [fill in the blank] I really pushed you away and then of course I didn’t cause you to pick up a drink or a drug…” but that was that person’s go-to. The drug or the drink was their solution. And then the alcoholic/addict would listen and then they would also talk about what they did – “Yeah, every time this happened I would use and I would be mad at you, you didn’t bail me out of jail and I’d be mad at this…” and so forth. So everybody just owns up to their own behavior, what was going on with them at the time and then they would come to, “Okay, now we need to do something different,” This is the beginning of how each person in the family can recognize their part, and begin to learn new skills around how to communicate better.

Regaining Trust After Recovery

It takes a lot of inner work on the part of the person who is recovering, but also a lot of inner work on the part of the family member to recognize that defensive actions are not personal, but that they arise out of hurt and broken hearts.

Oftentimes, patients ask how they can bring their wife to family weekend, or the Al-anon, and how they can get their parent or partner to trust them. It is really difficult for family members to trust someone after years of drinking or using drugs. The only way they can rebuild trust is to show up consistently, show up for themselves, as well as for their family. Going to treatment doesn’t automatically make everything ok. The family is still left behind and may not be ready yet to accept and make changes. There’s different people entering recovery at different stages and ages.

With encouragement, education, and helping to understand the difference between addictive behavior and the essence of a person, family can slowly and steadily learn to trust again. Helping a family member understand that when the addict in the relationship strikes out they’re striking out because they’re trying to survive in their addiction, they can see that it’s not personal – it feels personal but it’s not personal.

An important thing to remember is to help families and clients to understand that they’re not going to get all their needs met with one person or one family member or a sponsor or a counselor.

“I let go of my need for esteem, control, affection, security and power. I embrace this moment as it is”
-Thomas Keating, The Divine Therapy

The first few steps in any 12-step program are about surrender. As children growing up, or parents who have their own children, they depend on the parents for security, esteem, power, control and affection. And you have to get those needs met when you’re a child. None of us got all of our needs met when we were children – there’s nobody that has, even in even-keeled families without addiction or mental illness issues. When we’re reacting to things in the present moment it’s because we want esteem, control, affection, security and power. This is a great mantra to repeat when we feel the need for wellness.