Reuniting with a Loved One in Recovery: Five Key Questions

Monday, August 5th, 2013


I was struck by a recent “Dear Prudie” column in Slate, in which a pregnant woman expresses her concern about allowing her recovering addict brother into her baby’s life. Her husband feels uncomfortable with the idea of her brother interacting with the baby—and especially about the prospect of him babysitting alone. The woman feels torn; she concedes that her brother’s past behavior was destructive and hurtful, but she’s seen him make great strides in recovery and she wants him to have a relationship with her child.

When it comes to family members in recovery, this dilemma is oh-so-typical. It’s complicated to say the least and multiple issues come into play. In this case, it’s a mother balancing her loyalty between her brother, her husband, and her child. There’s a lot to consider, but here are the top questions family members should ask themselves to find their comfort zone with a newly sober loved one:

1. How should I handle contact with my loved one?

Some people in recovery have betrayed their families to such an extent that reunification is extremely difficult. If reconnection is the goal, as I hope it can be in most cases, it’s best to talk with a mental health professional. Before contact can be renewed, the family needs a chance to discuss the effects of this person’s addiction on their entire family life and dynamic.

2. What were costs of my loved one’s addiction?

So many of the families we see have not had adequate opportunities to tell their own stories and have them validated.  At Phoenix House, we have a family program called Connections and the first session with the client’s partner is called just that: “Vent and Validate.” The purpose is to acknowledge the cost of addiction, its effects on the family, and to give family members the opportunity to share anger, pain, guilt, grief, and to hear that those emotions are real and OK. When families have had a chance to vent before they come face to face with their loved one in recovery, they can lead with their desire for reconnection, rather than feelings of anger or grief.

3. Has my loved one acknowledged these costs?

The person in recovery needs to acknowledge that they have broken promises and betrayed trust. They need to be humble enough and ready enough to hear the impact that their actions have had. Of course, for a person in recovery, hearing “no” or “we don’t trust you,” can stir up all kinds of things: grief, resentment, shame, lack of support, defensiveness, untapped and unprocessed feelings. The person in recovery must be far enough along that they can tolerate this interaction and all the feelings of guilt and sadness it brings. If all family members are prepared to move forward, then they’re ready to have a dialogue. There’s work to be done on both sides.

4. What are my biggest concerns about letting my loved one back into my life?

We help families sort these feelings out. For the woman in the Prudie column, I’d say, “OK, so you feel loyal to your brother, and you want to give him the opportunity to come back into your family life. But your husband has reasonable safety concerns given your brother’s past. So you need to get these issues out on the table.” The couple will need to figure out, with the help of a counselor, how they want to relate to this family member. Of course it’s going to cause family tension, but people can and do work through it.

5. What are some small steps my loved one can take in order to regain my trust?

If family members feel they need to see specific actions from the person in recovery before they can be comfortable, they should be able to say what those things are. Remember, trust didn’t erode overnight, and it’s not going to be built back overnight. It’s time to take small steps, not large risks. For example, the recovering brother can hang out with the child with one or both parents present, to make sure the child is adequately protected before allowing unsupervised contact.

I tell people in recovery to commit to efforts, not to outcomes. They should only promise something achievable. For example, “Promise to go to all of your meetings that day. Promise to work on your relapse prevention plan, rather than promising to be home from treatment by Christmas.” These are things a person in recovery can agree to do to demonstrate the work they’re doing to become trustworthy.

Of course, none of this is ever easy. Dealing with a loved one in early recovery is a balance of loyalty and compassion, and at the same time, a desire to protect oneself and one’s family. It’s tricky territory for families and it’s preferable if they don’t attempt to navigate it on their own. Instead, they should seek help from a counselor, a family therapist, or a social worker. When families ask the right questions and have the proper professional guidance, this process can lead to healing and renewal.

Kim Sumner-Mayer
Senior Advisor, Center on Addiction and the Family
Phoenix House

If you or a loved one needs help for a substance abuse issue, Phoenix House is here for you. Email us or call today at 1 888 671 9392.

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