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Family support can be critical to successful recovery outcomes—but how do you find the encouragement you need when your family isn’t supportive or when you don’t have any family at all? Get some helpful pointers here:
In addiction recovery, the patient’s family is usually a major part of the support system. Whenever possible, everyone in the immediate household, plus any other relatives who have regular contact with the patient, should get actively involved in counseling and support-group participation for the long term.
Some families, however, are more hindrance than help. While in most dependence-affected households everyone plays some role in keeping the addiction going, there are families that are fixed in negative situations and don’t want to change:
- The family where heavy “social drinking,” “recreational” drug use or outright addiction is a way of life for almost every member—where challenges to the status quo are resented, and attempts at recovery are met with “holier than thou” accusations or “A little won’t hurt you” remarks
- The emotionally abusive family that has already labeled the addict as a “failure,” “worthless” and someone who “never sticks with anything”
- The family with members who protect their “good person” standing by manipulating others into “bad” behavior
- The insecurely indulgent family who is afraid to include any “tough” elements in their love
- The distant or “busy” family who can’t be bothered for special help if it involves inconveniencing themselves
- The denial-driven family that can’t be trusted for active help because its first concern is staying “respectable”
Or you may have no family at all—just a household of one where loneliness and boredom are constant temptations.
Whatever the circumstances, absence of healthy family support makes it extra important to build a strong network elsewhere. This article explores ways to find a support system when your family dynamics (or lack of such) threaten your recovery.
FINDING THE RIGHT SUPPORTERS
Nearly every recovering addict needs the regular camaraderie and empathy of a formal support group. Ask your treatment therapist about local chapters as soon as possible. Once you get into a group, stay active—in addition to attending regular meetings, ask for a personal sponsor/mentor, and make sure you have at least one partner to call immediately in case of temptation. Look also for fellow group members who are interested in becoming acquainted socially.
Religious congregations are another source of support: some even sponsor belief-specific recovery groups. Many people, with and without addiction issues, already consider their congregations surrogate families. However, there are dysfunctional congregations just as there are dysfunctional families. Find another congregation if yours exhibits any of the following characteristics:
- Stressing rules and rituals above concern for people
- Coming down hard on anyone who “sins” or questions leadership
- Ignoring or denying signs of dishonesty, infidelity or power-grabbing, especially among prominent members
- Using guilt trips to push members into giving money or time beyond personally reasonable limits
- Stressing an “us vs. them” attitude toward anyone outside the congregation
Another way to make friends for your support network is to join social groups that share your interests. (Meetup.com is a popular resource for locating groups relevant to your preferred activities and geographical area.)
A bonus hint for those in one-person households: consider getting a pet! Responsibility for another living creature provides company and extra motivation to stay sober.
SHOULD YOU MAINTAIN RELATIONSHIPS WITH A NON-SUPPORTIVE FAMILY?
Even as your outside support system grows, you’ll likely wonder about future relationships with a distant, unhelpful or dysfunctional family. No matter how badly they’ve treated you, it’s hard to contemplate telling close relatives you’ll have nothing more to do with them. Especially if they were dropping by regularly, if they consider it your duty to visit on command, or if they actually share your current household.
You may be faced with a tough decision on whether you can live with the situation as is, or whether you need to make a partial or clean break. And you’ll rarely be an adequate judge of this on your own, so talk with your sponsor or therapist before making the final decision—especially if making a break requires finding new living quarters, kicking someone out from under your roof, dealing with a manipulative guilt trip or confronting anyone with a history of possessiveness and violence.
You probably should minimize contact, at least until you achieve a year or two of sobriety, if you answer “yes” to any of the following:
- Is this family member in denial about an addiction of their own?
- Have they been physically or emotionally abusive? Does their anger express itself through personal insults?
- Are they quick to blame and slow to forgive? Have they consistently justified their own behavior, whatever the circumstances?
- Do they constantly interrupt, belittle or otherwise refuse to listen to your point of view?
- Do they put down your interests and goals?
- Do they seem afraid to let you grow up, or do they take it personally if you don’t automatically do everything they “suggest”?
- Do they exude contagious negativity?
- Have they met your previous attempts to detox with such comments as, “You’re not going to turn into one of those prudes who never drinks, are you?” or “You change? Don’t make me laugh”?
- Are they hostile to any suggestion of not keeping intoxicating substances in easy reach for their own use?
Remember, though, that you probably share some responsibility for family dysfunction. A cynical “you’ll never change” remark, for example, may simply be due to your having already disappointed someone more than once. Consider carefully where you need to make amends or prove yourself.
WHEN OLD FAMILY DYNAMICS HAUNT YOU
Often, a former addict and formerly dysfunctional family achieve eventual reconciliation as both sides grow, learn and re-establish communications from healthier angles. Not always, however. You may be among the less fortunate with one or more family members hardened beyond hope—or who have already taken their grudges and bad behavior to their graves.
Even when the break is permanent, even when the other party is long gone, you may still carry in your heart old family dynamics that threaten your recovery:
- Internalized shame-based comments, calling you “hopeless” or “stupid” or “bad”
- Guilt over having disappointed a parent
- Anger over someone’s never giving you the apology they owed
Any thinking that impedes your confidence or your ability to forgive (including forgiving yourself) increases your risk of relapse. Talk to a professional counselor (and your Higher Power) about ways to purge old pain and strengthen the new you.
Whatever happens, remember no one is ever completely “alone.” There will always be a place for you, somewhere in the sobriety community and somewhere in the human community.
Babakhan, Jen. “11 Ways You’re Being a Toxic Parent—Without Even Knowing It.” RD.com (Reader’s Digest). Accessed June 29, 2017.
Miles, Lisa A. “Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families.” PsychCentral, May 17, 2016. Accessed June 29, 2017.
RebosTreatment.com. “Family Roles in Addiction and Recovery.” January 19, 2017. Accessed June 29, 2017.
RedEye Chicago. “Addiction and the family: What are the roles that emerge?” Chicago Tribune, August 11, 2015. Accessed June 29, 2017.
UpChurch, John. “10 Signs of an Abusive Church.” Crosswalk.com, May 23, 2014. Accessed June 29, 2017.