By: Sarah Surrey, LCSW
It was the mid-1990’s. The field of addiction studies was solidly on its feet, moving out of church basements and into the research labs of the top universities in the world. It was a growing field for researchers, with the ability to see what addiction was doing inside of the brain. It was also around this time that researcher Stephanie Brown was defining the process of recovery for families. She would assert that families are not just along for the ride with their loved one, but are moving in and out of their own recovery from addiction too.
She understood the wake of addiction’s collateral damage because she had seen it in her own family while she was in the process of recovering. The addiction studies field was defining four stages of recovery for the person struggling with addiction, and Brown defined four parallel stages of family recovery. These stages are active addiction/use, transition, early recovery, and on-going recovery.
Stage One: Active Addiction/Use
For families, their loved one’s active use normally is characterized by a lot of emotions from outright denial to wide ranges of fear and rage. This stage is chaotic, confusing, and traumatizing. Normally, the families’ emotions are tied tightly to the ebb and flow of the loved one’s use. When he is drinking, they are terrified. When she misses another school play, they are devastated. When he appears to have his use momentarily under control, they allow themselves to have a glimmer of hope and doubt.
Families in this stage yell and cry, barter and beg. They threaten, and retreat. They tend to become increasingly isolated. They start to think that they have to hide the problem, and no one else is dealing with this but them. They feel the stigma of addiction deeply. The behavior of their loved one digs its own grooves into their memories, which translates into automatic patterns of worry. Even if their loved one gets into recovery, this pattern of worry remains hard to shake. With or without their loved one’s recovery, there is hope for families. Families don’t have to live in the chaos of active use, even if their loved one remains there.
Stage Two: Transition
Transition is the stage in which loved one’s begin to shift from active use to abstinence. Families might find themselves navigating a world of overwhelming language about treatment options. Some families are actively involved in the process, researching the range of available options and hand delivering their loved one to a hospital or treatment center door. Others are on the fringes of their loved one’s transition. They might feel like they are on-call for snack money, but otherwise don’t hear much. Maybe families and loved one’s have settled into a routine of allowing a loved one to navigate the transition stage with as much space as possible, while everyone begins to heal their own wounds. There’s no right way to navigate the transition stage.
Families can begin their own transition with or without their loved one’s long term sobriety. There are resources for families so that they can begin to step back from the chaos and worry, just a little bit at a time, even if their loved one is unable to remain sober. In fact, support for families might be even more crucial if loved one’s are unable to remain sober. It’s not a straight and easy path right out of ever worrying again. It’s a journey that starts with recognizing that addiction has had an impact on you too, and that there might be a way to live healthier no matter what happens.
Stage Three: Early Recovery
For loved one’s, early recovery is about taking ongoing steps towards recovery. There’s a lot of trial and error, with loved one’s connecting to a whole range of supports. This is a tense time for family members, sometimes as stressful as active use, because the fear that recovery won’t last is hanging in the air. Sometimes fear feels like a whole entity in itself, lingering behind every conversation and sitting right at the dinner table. Most families feel themselves walking on eggshells, and worried that they will do something to cause their loved one to relapse. And then what? Back to the exhaustion of active addiction?!
At this stage, it is crucial that families have their own support. Families need a deep and varying bench, so to speak, of people to call on when they are lost in their own struggle. Counselors, clergy, and peer support through Al-Anon can all be a part of a families’ aftercare plan. Talking to other people who have also navigated their loved one’s recovery is invaluable.This might be a one time journey for your family, with your loved one moving into on-going recovery soon. For many, it isn’t that simple. People who love a person with a substance use disorder know that relapse is possible. Loved one’s move in and out of recovery for months, or years sometimes. If that might be the case, it strengthens the argument for families to have their own large support system for the long haul.
Stage Four: On-Going Recovery
On-going recovery for a person with a substance use disorder is going to be a time when recovery has integrated into their life. They fulfill their roles and responsibilities, with as many mistakes as any other human being. They face stress and hardship, but they have tools to cope without substance use. The edge of early recovery wears off, just like the intensity of those early recovery cravings. Some people maintain long term recovery, and face long term battles with mental health issues. Some stay sober, but never quite hit a comfortable stride. They remain a bit edgy and unpredictable.
Family members in on-going recovery will also settle into a new normal. There is almost never a family that gets to “go back” to what they had “before”. Families build something new, with some added boundaries and stronger support. If families don’t start to deal with the long term emotional impact of addiction, they risk struggling even well into their loved one’s sobriety. Most of these struggles are in the form of anxiety, worry, and a mountain of resentment. There is hope for getting through those struggles, and working towards being healthy along with your loved one in recovery.
Connecting to Support
Many families do thrive in their loved one’s recovery, and even without their loved one’s recovery. For more resources on connecting to support as a family struggling with addiction, see the links below. If your loved one has been in treatment with Harris House, consider reconnecting to the ongoing family group led by Harris House counselors. Addiction impacts everyone, but so can recovery.