Jane Austen once wrote, “To wish is to hope, and to hope is to expect.”
When a person enters into recovery, their family has the opportunity to enter into hopeful recovery. The hope starts with an expectation of change. What exactly will change is the dilemma.
Will things get better or worse? When someone stops using a substance or engaging in addictive behaviors, does that mean the family feels better? There are so many questions to explore in early recovery, which leads to a need to understand expectations. A hopeful family should expect change and learn what is typical during recovery.
If you know someone who quit smoking, you probably remember that they were not easy to be around. You may have wanted to purchase them a pack of cigarettes just so they’d be easier to deal with. Understanding that people struggle when they stop something so important to them helps you cope with the storm of recovery. Quitting a substance or behavior does not magically change someone’s collection of emotional struggles. In fact, these emotional struggles may become more pronounced as the person gives up a primary coping skill.
Imagine that you were unable to drink coffee for a week. How would you feel? You might be willing to hurt someone just to get a cup of that intoxicating, magical elixir.
A person giving up alcohol, cocaine, marijuana or other substances may experience a great loss. This loss may contribute to a sense of anger, frustration and sadness. In the addiction field, we understand that people in early recovery usually have post-acute withdrawal after the first week of abstinence. They typically experience mood swings, anxiety, difficulty sleeping and a host of other struggles. A hopeful family understands this, which helps them be patient with their family member.
Country music is always good for serious life reflection. There is an old song whose singer bemoans the lack of fun he was having since he quit drinking. He could no longer tolerate his relationship because he was not insulated from the normal emotions of connecting to others.
Many people in early recovery have forgotten how to connect with others. They may not communicate the way you expect, and they may use a safe emotion like anger to keep you away. As a family, you may expect that sobriety will help your family member return to being the person you recall before addiction took over. This takes time and a significant amount of patience.
Telling a family to have patience may not be fair as they have spent so much time, energy and love trying to reach their family member. Now they have some therapist telling them to remain patient. There is an appreciation that this is hard to do, but it’s possible with the understanding that this is normal and not a reflection of you.
It is important to understand that recovery is hard work for everyone. A hopeful family continues the work even when it is exhausting. However, when it becomes exhausting, it is essential to take time and attend to self-care.
When someone stops using, the family may be confronted with blame, guilt and anger. They may hear things that make it seem like they are the cause of the problem. This can cause great resentment: “Who does this person think they are saying I am the reason they used?” You might want to withdrawal from the recovery process. You may even say, “This is your problem, not mine.”
The truth is addiction is a brain disorder the affects everyone in the family. You may expect heartfelt thanks for all of your sacrifice, and when you do not immediately get it feel confused or hurt. Remember that in early recovery it is difficult to feel thankful for much. Only after a period of time does the brain start to function at a healthy level.
During the last 10 years, neuroscience research has helped us understand that the brain starts to function better at 90 days, one year and 18 months of sobriety. A reasonable expectation is to understand that it will get better with time. Take care of your needs, maintain boundaries and keep working even when you feel like quitting.
In the movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” Andy tells Red to remember that “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing every dies.” It is so important to maintain your hope in the recovery process as it is the best of things. Stormy recovery is normal, and you can manage it. Like hurricane preparation, you have to know what to expect, stock up on water (patience) and “hunker down.”
John O'Neill, EdD, LCSW, LCDC, CAS, is the clinical program director for the Bellaire location of Outpatient Services.