The only thing harder than being an alcoholic or addict is loving one. While we tend to be smart, passionate, creative people and these characteristics can mean we’re charismatic and fun to be around, that can also translate to being moody, erratic and self-centered. In recovery, we (hope to) learn to maximize our assets and let go of the uglier parts of our addictive personalities—or at least channel those qualities in a productive direction.
After we get sober, we are no longer tied to our old, dysfunctional ways of living because we need to hide our drinking or drug use. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and freedom that comes with intense personal growth and forget the people who have had a front row seat to our transformation. These are the parents, spouses and long-suffering friends who’ve seen it all. They held our hair, bailed us out of jams (or jail) and maybe even hid their purses when we were around. Now they are watching us rebuild our lives and may be confused about what that means for them. Here’s what I think they should know.
1) It’s not your fault.
Nobody can make another person an alcoholic or addict. Every individual ultimately makes the choice to drink or use drugs for themselves. On the flip side, those in recovery also eventually make the choice to stop (that’s why you can’t love somebody into getting sober). Yes, abuse and trauma that may contribute to someone wanting to numb out, but long-term substance abuse is much bigger than one person.
2) Stop enabling.
You probably call this “helping” but for us, it isn’t. When you blame yourself, blame others, lie about our drug/alcohol use, make excuses for our behavior or ignore warning signs it’s called enabling. This type of behavior sets addicts up for failure (we can’t help but take advantage of you when you make it so easy) and it sets you up to resent us.
3) You don’t want to know everything.
There are things we’ve seen and done that would make your skin crawl. Don’t push us for details about our active addiction. Don’t ask us where we really were and what we were doing on all those missed family dinners, celebrations and life events. Even if we do remember, it won’t make anybody feel better to relive those times.
4) Don’t ask about our therapy (or program) unless you really want to know.
Recovery is tricky, especially in the beginning. It’s private and often tenuous and also intense and full of new discoveries. We will be alternately exhilarated and terrified by our feelings. If you ask about our meeting or appointment and all you are looking for is evidence that we really attended, we may surprise you with a 20-minute monologue about our latest personal growth. If you aren’t prepared to actually listen and be supportive, don’t ask.
5) Don’t ask how long we have to go to meetings (or therapy).
Also, don’t call it “those classes” and act like we’re in second grade. Every time you are tempted to treat our recovery like a jail sentence (even if it is) ask yourself if you would rather have us back out drinking or using. Sitting in a therapist’s office or a church basement may not make sense to you, but it helps us and that’s why we keep doing it.
6) Using our past against us will push us away.
Trust me—we know what big pieces of shit we used to be. If you bring up the past to hurt us you probably think you are reminding us of an obligation to treat you better in the present. In reality, this type of emotional blackmail makes you feel like an unsafe and unsupportive person and we will be forced to avoid you to preserve our sanity.
7) At some point, your dysfunction may become uncomfortable for us.
You are not obligated to get help just because we are, but you can expect things to change between us. It’s usually a good idea for the loved ones of recovering addicts and alcoholics to attend at least a few family therapy sessions or Alanon meetings. These resources can help you understand how the dynamic of the relationship may shift and how to approach your loved one in a healthy and productive way.
8) Our boundaries may piss you off.
A boundary is a guideline in a relationship designed to protect someone from harm. This can mean certain types of actions, topics, people or places are off limits when you are with us. Please understand that we set boundaries because we are trying to heal. Therefore, sometimes we will need to confront situations that aren’t comfortable for us anymore or conducive to our mental health. As we become more emotionally stable, our roles are likely to change from dependency and authority to mutuality. This doesn’t mean we don’t love you or we think we are better than you. We are just trying to recover.
9) If you’re waiting for big dramatic amends you may be disappointed.
This can be really hard because you may feel we owe you something after how we have mistreated you. Amends are complicated and personal. You may get a formal apology on bended knee and a check for all the money we’ve ever stolen from you, but probably not. Chances are, the amends will be a gradual shift in the relationship that results in us treating you better, paying you back in little ways and making a concerted effort to not mistreat you.
10) We love you, but we don’t need you.
We want you in our lives, but if you can’t be supportive of our lifestyle we may choose to end the relationship. Or limit our interactions with you. One universal truth people in recovery learn is that lasting change is motivated from within. We are doing this for us—not you. We are struggling every day to shed our old identities and rebuild ourselves. Just like our disease caused a whirlwind of chaos for everyone we encountered, our recovery can be an asset to our families, our friends and our employers. We want to surround ourselves with those who love us and lift us up. If you can’t do that, don’t be surprised if we find it somewhere else.