Head changes have a way of clouding the working space of our mind. While the first drink or hit welcomes that cozy tingle of detachment, we do not realize that the chemicals which silence our anxiety are also silencing ourselves and everything around us. They are silencing the calls of our friends and family who can only watch our self-sabotage with knitted brows. As addicts and alcoholics, we do not see the subtle ways our decline undermines fundamental family trust. After all, how could we when all the head changes are compromising the ability to see anything? The enveloping darkness of chemical dependency makes it hard to see your hand directly in front of you, much less anything else. Recovery offers a way back to the truth and to ourselves. But as that journey begins, we realize that a few steps aren’t getting us much closer to our loved ones. And as we start to really look and pay attention to what has happened outside of our own suffering, we realize family is no longer waiting with an open embrace. They’ve crossed their arms and regard you with suspicion. Why won’t they reach out to help? Can’t they see how much you’re hurting, and how much you want to rejoin them in how things used to be?
You’re Not the Only One Who Needs to Heal
Choosing recovery at all is a bigger step than many struggling with chemical dependency are willing or able to make. Starting the journey of recovery is a choice to be proud of. But here’s a reality check: in the midst of your disease, your mind was numbed against processing your hurtful behaviors, but your loved ones’ minds were fully tuned in to everything. Your family has been sitting in that reality for the entire span of your active addiction, just as powerless as you are over how alcohol or drugs hijack the decision-making part of your brain. While a few trespasses of a suffering addicted loved one might be overlooked, the behaviors of addiction have been compromising their trust in you for months or years.
Consider that dynamic for a minute. Just as you will need time to rewire your brain to make healthy decisions again, they need to heal from the wreckage they experienced in dealing with a lying, stealing, dishonest version of yourself. Hopefully loved ones are educated that addiction is, in fact, a disease, and that you did not choose to behave in ways contrary to your character. But their acknowledgement of your disease includes a reasonable expectation that relapses may occur. The high prevalence of relapse in alcoholics and addicts is a statistical fact (40%-60% of individuals treated for alcohol use disorder and up to 90% of opiate users relapse within a year of treatment); statistics are not a judgement on your individual willpower. While there is no benefit to feeling shame over how our families behave with caution around us, we as addicts and alcoholics need to accept that trust is earned only by our sober selves, and that process will take time.
Guilt Versus Shame: Which One Moves Us Closer to Family?
Many addicts in early recovery feel that their loved ones are trying to shame them when trust doesn’t snap back to 100% right away once we get clean and sober. This may come in the form of family questioning the person’s honesty with statements like, “You’re acting weird, have you been using?” These sorts of questions can feel like direct accusations. It’s humiliating enough to be an addict or alcoholic in early recovery, why do they need to rub salt in the wound? But it is important to recognize that feeling shame over their reasonable suspicions can be dangerous and lead to relapses.
Guilt, on the other hand, can be a very useful reaction to these sorts of confrontations. The difference between guilt and shame is subtle but crucial.
remorse that you DID something bad
remorse that you ARE something bad
Guilt is a normal and expected response when we’re confronted with the interpersonal complications of our disease. Without feeling guilt over the ways we’ve hurt others (even if it was unintentional), there is little motivation to make a change. The rooms of AA and NA echo with talk of “spiritual awakenings.” The transformation from feeling shame (“I am bad”) to guilt (“I did something bad, but I don’t have to do that anymore”) is a big aspect of spiritual awakening. The acceptance of the past paired with the freedom from feeling compelled to repeat those mistakes is a powerful force to be reckoned with. While guilt is uncomfortable, it can be harnessed into contrition. Genuine contrition through works (going to meetings, finding a sponsor, working a program) is a signal to family members that it’s safe to move a little closer to you.
Give Them (and Yourself) A Break
Emotions are exhausting. Particularly when they are the acute ones that come along with addiction and the ensuing family fallout. Both the addict themselves and the affected family members have legitimate frustrations and hurts that need to be processed. But there comes a certain point that launching those emotions at the other party within the family is no longer healthy, and it only serves to fray exposed nerves rather than heal each other’s wounds.
These encounters can get ugly and involve a lot of tears. While the intent is good (trying to fix a problem), sometimes the most effective way to fix situations is to give each other a break and find other safe spaces to process such volatile emotions. This is the basic purpose of AA/NA (for the addict) and Al-Anon/Nar-Anon (for the family members). In these meeting spaces, each individual can speak to others who are going through a parallel experience. These are the rooms to find and share experience, strength, and hope. Rather than react to your addict or loved one with exasperation and anger, it can be much more useful to bring those feelings to people who are in a place to hear and understand. If AA or Al-Anon is not right for you, a licensed therapist can be an effective resource as well. Anything that helps honor your process while also giving the other person involved a break.
There’s Still Hope (But Don’t Expect Fireworks)
If there’s anything more sobering than literally being sober, it’s realizing how much work is required to repair damaged trust. Your friends and family can’t just shrug and pretend the dishonesty never happened, as much as they might want to. Seeing that you’re still being looked at like an active alcoholic or addict can feel so overwhelming that thoughts start sneaking up to whisper, “So why even try to get better? What’s the point?”
But those errant thoughts are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They’re the subtle, lingering parts of addiction that threaten to pull you back down to rock bottom. Withdrawing will not create a bridge back to your loved ones. While the self-pitying and anger may feel righteous, they are nothing more than distractions. There is still hope. It may not happen in the way you expect it, and it certainly won’t happen overnight. Getting to the other side won’t be a grandiose fireworks show. But as long as you keep the faith and continue working an honest program, it does get better.
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, our addiction counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-737-7363