Recovery for family members — meaning to really let go of the worry, fear and angst over a loved one’s substance abuse or addiction, to forgive them and oneself for the insanity the disease caused in one’s life, to really understand what it means to set boundaries and let go of trying to control others and outcomes — IS entirely possible. Here’s another part of my story that may help you on your road to recovery as a family member of someone who abuses or is addicted to drugs or alcohol. It takes time – I won’t pretend it doesn’t. But even as it’s happening, there is a great deal of relief and joy to be had – especially when we have the tools and better understandings to take it One Day at a Time…
“Tell us ‘How do you feel?’ and ‘What did you do for yourself this week?’”
These were the first two questions we had to answer during “check in” at the family group meetings I attended as part of the program offerings at the residential treatment center to which Alex* admitted himself. At first, I thought it was really dumb. I had one feeling – anger – and as for doing something for myself, I didn’t have time! I was too busy keeping the home front going while Alex was in residence at the center. And, before that, I was too busy keeping everyone squared away while I battled his drinking. Besides, doing something for myself sounded – well – selfish.
Our family group’s therapist kept at it, however, week after week. She didn’t allow answers like, “fine,” “good” or “okay,” either. Giving an “acceptable” answer was difficult for myself and the others in the group, and our therapist was often greeted with a look that said, “So what’s wrong with “good,” “fine” or “okay”?” (We’d eventually learn to appreciate that those answers were vague and intentionally evasive, as we began to understand the reason for her effort.) Our family therapist was helping us unlearn one of a codependent’s primary coping skills – that of “not feeling.” This pre-meeting “check-in,” as it was called, forced us to think about ourselves, about how we felt, not about how someone else felt. In time, we could describe our feelings with words like, “frustrated,” “anxious,” “betrayed,” “used,” “stressed” – even, “hopeful,” “happy,” and “content.”
As for, “What did you do for yourself this week?” it could be something like taking a walk, getting a manicure, watching a football game, not reacting to a loved one when he came home drunk. It could be as simple as going for an ice cream with the children. But, initially, most of us couldn’t answer this question either. We’d offer reasons, like: “I was swamped at work.” “I had to finish my tax return.” “I had to take care of my mother-in-law.” “My friend’s mother was ill, so I had to watch her kids.” These all seemed like reasonable excuses, but our family therapist would just nod and say that she understood (and you believed her because she really did) and then she’d gently encourage us to try to do something for ourselves the following week.
Believe it or not, eventually we got that, too. Some got so bold as to do something on a daily basis (like exercising) and others actually did something way out of the ordinary, like taking a weekend trip with a friend. Being able to do something “selfish” was hugely satisfying and (dare I say) “Fun!” It was also freeing because we could see that taking the focus off the alcoholic/drug addict, alcohol/drug abuser or another family member did not cause our world to fall apart. For most of us, it was also the first time, in a long time, that we’d thought about what might (or did) make us happy, not what we thought would make someone else happy.
So, I would suggest those of you who are grappling with a loved one’s addiction, substance abuse or recovery program try this exercise periodically throughout the day. Ask yourself how you’re feeling without answering “good,” “fine” or “okay,” and then ask yourself what you would like to do for yourself and do it! Learning how you feel and what you want will eventually free you to do it on a more regular basis. (And, what you want may be to do something for someone else. That’s okay! It’s what you want to do.)
And if you’re really new to this whole family member recovery concept and just want to help your addict/alcoholic loved one, you may want to start with this post, First Things First – When Recovery Feels Overwhelmingly Difficult, Keep It Simple.
*Alex is the name I’ve assigned to represent any one of my family members and friends who abuse or are dependent on alcohol or who are in or not in recovery, so as to protect their anonymity. Alex is not one particular person, but rather represents their collective behaviors rolled into one. I use the pronoun, “he,” for simplicity’s sake.