Someone you care about has been given the ultimatum to “Get sober or get out,” received another DWI, awakened in Intensive Care from an overdose, realized that being in a blackout best explains thirteen hours of memory loss, or resorted to prostitution or theft to pay for drugs or alcohol; and you are wondering if this is the bottom you have heard about? “You have to hit bottom,” is a phrase often heard in recovery circles used to describe the point when a person becomes convinced they have a problem they need to do something about, and begin doing the hard work necessary to change from one lifestyle to another. While many would consider DWIs, blackouts, overdose, and the sort to be as low as anyone should have to go, some bottoms seem to have a basement. Family and friends (hereafter referred to as family) can want sobriety for the addict/alcoholic (hereafter referred to as addict) very much, but until the addict decides that he or she has had enough, gives up, surrenders and actually does something to change no change will occur. There is no metric to determine whether someone has reached their bottom in a present perfect tense—no “This is it.” Family simply sees evidence of change; at first only painfully slow baby steps of progress through a change of mind, attitude, and behavior communicating a positive difference between what was and what is. For family, bottom will be best recognized as having occurred after the addict stops saying and starts doing. Another phrase often heard in recovery circles goes something like, “But I love them and don’t want them to make a complete mess of their life.” Family often says this as it struggles with what it should or should not do to support the addict. The natural desire of course is to help the addict get a fresh start by fixing, cleaning-up-after, or un-doing. But while the addict’s decision to use has resulted in circumstances that may be quite unpleasant, the family’s not allowing the addict to learn from consequence results only in maintaining the status quo—nothing changes. The family’s making things easier for the addict by cleaning-up “the mess” is, in fact, counterproductive.
Just as the addict has a fulltime job in recovery, so does the family. While the addict is acquiring the tools necessary to learn how to “live-life-on-life’s-terms” without mind-altering substances, the family must educate itself about the brand of addiction enslaving the addict, how to recognize the difference between supporting recovery and enabling addiction, and how to care for itself during the addict’s recovery. In part, this education occurs through Family Support Groups where parents and spouses hear, from other parents and spouses, what has and has not worked in finding the balance between too much and too little love. Family Support Group is where family learns that loving (supporting) the addict often requires allowing the addict to experience the full weight of consequence, and that the opposite of this is called enabling. Any family makes the best decision it knows how to given a particular set of circumstance and information at a particular time. Family Support Group provides a forum for family members to learn how to support the addict with a committed framework for recovery by maintaining a unified set of expectations, and how not to do enabling which keeps the addict from encountering the lesson of the teachable moment and the responsibility to soberly make better decisions. Family Support Group does not engage in “Monday Morning Quarterbacking;” its purpose is not to shame another family group member by doing shoulda, woulda, or coulda. Family Support Group teaches members enabling occurs when someone make excuses for the addict’s bad behavior or choice; when someone gives in because it’s just easier; when someone bails the addict out of jail for the second, third, fourth…time; when someone allows the addict to verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually abuse others; when someone provides money without accountability; or when someone cleans-up the “mess.” Enabling keeps the addict from realizing that the pain of the addictive lifestyle is greater than the pleasure and serves only to make bottom further away.
The last paragraph identified the need for the family to maintain a unified set of expectations. Often left unsaid—except in Family Support Group—is the vital expectation for family to support (care for) itself. The family absolutely must take care of itself if it is to remain an adequate system of recovery for the addict. Time must be allocated by the family to ensure that adequate sleep, nutrition, exercise, recreation, and communication occur to compensate the stress of supporting the addict. Placing the health and integrity of the family first will require the family to communicate clear limits and boundaries for everyone—including the addict—and define the limits of the family’s ability to support the addict while in recovery. Caring for the addict will, no doubt, require some renegotiation of expectations, roles, and boundaries within the family to protect it from emotional, relational, and economic exhaustion. The scope of such renegotiation is too great to address here but may include: working out transportation, accountability for expendable cash, who goes when and to what support meetings, resolving disagreements, breaches of behavior, curfews, chores, visitation rights, etc. The family’s willingness to address how well roles, expectations, and boundaries are working—including how well the recovering addict is doing in supporting the family—increases the probability of family wellbeing and recovery success. Family Support Group members find it helpful to utilize a family therapist in constructively resolving such renegotiations with the addict in recovery.
See you in group.