Addiction affects an entire family and so does recovery.
I first ‘met’ John McMahon, PhD, who lives in the UK, when he replied to my blog post, “After Years of Sobriety, She/He Won’t Forgive or Forget,” recently. We exchanged a few emails, and I learned that he and his wife, Lou, a counselor, founded the website, Bottled-up.com, to provide help and support to people living with an alcoholic. I invited them to write a guest post and share a bit of their backgrounds. Between them they have, if not an unique experience then certainly a highly appropriate background. Lou is a counsellor with a private practice. She also has first-hand experience of alcohol abuse and its effects in her own family. She is a classically trained musician, a graduate of the Royal College of Music, London, and a singer / songwriter who has made 7 albums and toured the UK, USA and South Africa giving concerts and workshops. John is a PhD in psychology. He has practiced as a therapist and has designed and run treatment programs for addiction problems. John has also been clean and sober since 1984 and has been involved in teaching and organising treatment for almost as long.
John and Lou can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Recovery Can Be a Gift by John and Lou McMahon
Living with an alcoholic is hard. So it is hardly surprising that partners and families of alcoholics dream of the time when the drinking finally stops. In their minds everything will then be great, the drinker will return to the person that they love and life will go back to normal.
For most people at the beginning of the recovery process there is still, unfortunately, a considerable amount of work to be done if the relationship is going to thrive. Remember that there has been a lot of mistrust and emotional and perhaps even physical damage done over the years. There have been arguments, promises made, promises broken, hopes raised and hopes dashed. These things take time to heal. There are also the problems that can arise from the adjustment to a new way of life for both you and the drinker. Think of it as now the storm has passed, it is time to repair the damage.
Unrealistic Expectations of Sobriety
It has been difficult hanging on and keeping the faith over the years. You may have spent quite a lot of time dreaming about when he stops drinking and your life gets back to ‘normal’. You may have very definite ideas what that ‘normal’ will entail.
One of the dangers here is that you may set yourself up for a disappointment. It may be that your expectations, while understandable, are unrealistic. It is possible that you have a vision of family life that is either not shared by your partner or that he cannot deliver even if he does share it. It may also be the case that she doesn’t actually know what your dream is. Over the years your communication has almost certainly suffered; that is something that needs to be repaired. Talking through what you both want and expect from each other may be revealing and help to clarify your new roles and status. It may be difficult at first as you are probably not very accustomed to sitting and planning together. You have probably had to take the responsible role and now your partner may want to ‘share’ that role. That could be a relief, but it could also be difficult to relinquish the control.
Rather than have high expectations you may find yourself at the other extreme. After having your hopes built and then being disappointed so many times, you may feel reluctant to allow your hopes to be built up too far as it is painful to have them crushed again. Indeed, you may take the view that having no hope is easier to deal with as it is a state that, while not comfortable, is at least familiar.
Again this is an understandable reaction to the roller coaster ride of uncertainty that has been your life. However, beware that you don’t become too cynical. He probably needs support, especially in the early days of recovery and so may take your negativity as a sign that you don’t believe or appreciate the changes he has made, or that you just don’t care. However it is important to stress that, it is not your responsibility to keep her sober, but it is in your interest to provide support and encouragement.
Walking on Eggshells
You may find that your ex-drinker is experiencing difficulty adjusting to a new sober lifestyle and feel that they are reacting irritably to any interaction. So you may feel that you need to monitor your every word or action in case she becomes negative and has a drink. If you are living like this then you probably feel that nothing very much has changed from the drinking days. We are sure that this is not what you dreamed or hoped for when he got sober.
If you feel that you are walking on eggshells, perhaps you should start by asking yourself, why you are doing that. You know from experience that worrying about her drinking, policing etc never got her sober. So it is unlikely that worrying about whether he is going to drink is going to keep him sober!
Obviously you do not want her to return to drinking and all the misery that the drinking brought. However please remember that you are not responsible for her staying sober or drinking. If he should drink it is completely his choice! Be supportive and positive but remember that you have a life as well and you should live it. Besides she needs to take responsibility and that can be difficult if you are fussing around her. Letting him get on with his recovery may be the best thing for both of you and will allow you both to grow.
Dealing with the Past
It is not only the drinker’s feelings that need to be monitored. Time and again you have heard the promises and assurances that drinking is over and this is a new beginning. Having lived on the emotional rollercoaster, it takes time to develop trust again. It will probably develop much more slowly than the drinker would like, but it has to be earned.
Ironically once trust has actually been regained can be one of the crisis points in the recovery relationship. Having started to relax into a way of life that does not include drinking, the partner may access all the feelings that were evoked by years of drinking but were never addressed openly. Anger, rage and resentment can burst out into this new ‘safe’ environment which may be flashpoint but could lead to deep healing.
The drinker may feel that the anger is unjustified as he is sober now and all that is behind him, besides he said sorry. Nevertheless these feelings will demand to be expressed and the healthiest way to do that is with the drinker. If he can listen to his partner’s feelings at that stage without excuses and justification then there is an opportunity for growth within himself and the relationship. However that is not an easy task; maybe he can view it as making amends. Otherwise there is a danger that it will always be the unspoken obstacle to the relationship.
Recovery Needs Work
The quality of the recovery, for both of you, will depend on the effort that you make in these early stages. Depending how you approach it, it can be a wonderful time of new opportunity or a time to pick over old wounds. We don’t minimise the problems in any way, we have been there, so we know the issues. However there is a chance here to build a relationship that doesn’t disappoint, that doesn’t bring shame, that has good channels of communication and that makes you both happy.
Most people go through life without questioning their hopes, values and dreams too much, locked into patterns of behaviour that were established years before. Although it may not seem it at the time, recovery can be a precious gift. For if you approach it in a positive fashion you can reinvent your relationship, create a new way of life, a new you and a new us. However this will not just happen automatically when the drinking stops. It will take time and effort but it is worth it.