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  • Writer's pictureCorinne Yeadon

Tough Love

When a loved one stops using drugs or alcohol and begins a journey into recovery, is it possible to know what that will look like? Is it best to walk away?

In the early stages of recovery a concerned other may experience as many if not more changeable emotional states than their loved one.

You may imagine that the dominant feeling is one of relief, this certainly may be the case in the very early stages as any problematic behaviour associated with drug or alcohol use may have stopped.

I have first hand experience of being in a relationship with someone in recovery. Every day is a process of learning for both me and my husband David, who has been sober for almost 7 years. I can honestly say that even though I worked in addictions for 12 years, it has been a revelation to me to witness the emotional growth as well as behavioural changes. Without being too cheese or cringe I have so much respect, pride and admiration for David and others who take the step into recovery.

It’s easy to believe that it is only necessary to stop drinking if someone has a fully blown physical dependency, however many problems arise from episodic binge drinking. There can be several reasons to quit, ongoing issues like boozy arguments or a major incident such as drink driving can prompt action to change. If there has been a specific event which has led to this decision, concerned others can be weighed down with anxiety and fearful of repeat performances of challenging behaviour.

These fears can manifest in over protective behaviours which can become equally as destructive as the behaviour brought about by drinking. There can be temptations to ‘police’ someone in terms of their whereabouts, their friends and finances. There may be people that are considered, “to blame,” for a loved one’s drinking or drug use. Although this is coming from a place of love, it will cause untold anxiety and stress to the individual and serve no purpose in keeping the loved one “safe.” It can also be misconstrued by the person making positive changes as a lack of trust or belief in their ability to be better, they may feel that their efforts are being minimised.

There’s often a reluctance for concerned others to speak to family or friends about their loved ones drinking or recovery, let alone seek external support. This can be for a variety of reasons. When you love someone, you don’t always want others to think “badly” of them. There is also the inevitable “advice” others may provide which is generally directive, involves “tough love” or them recounting, what they would / wouldn’t tolerate. The reality is things are rarely that black and white where there are emotional attachments.

Another barrier for family is the shame and guilt that may be attached to their loved one’s behaviour. They may feel a responsibility for them or that in some way it reflects negatively on them and their character. There also might be a desire to keep everything under wraps in the belief that it will be sorted within the family. Unfortunately, it is not possible to love someone into recovery.

There can be embarrassment attached to a loved one’s recovery or sobriety as it is an unavoidable reminder of the person having a problem in the first place.

In the early stages of recovery feelings are raw and heightened due to not being shushed or anaesthetised by a substance. The individual may experience feelings of euphoria about achieving sobriety, they also may be demonstrating feelings of remorse about their previous actions and behaviours, alongside, expressing gratitude for being supported.

It can take a while for a concerned other’s feelings to catch up to those of the person in recovery. They may still be wounded by previous events which can cause residual feelings of anger, fear or hurt. While this is understandable it is unhealthy and unhelpful to be driven by those feelings, for all involved. No amount of “I’m sorry’s” or “thankyou’s” from your loved one is going to moderate those feelings. The help to relinquish those feelings and the ability to move on needs to come from elsewhere, preferably an uninvolved, objective third party. Re-hashing previous events in order to make someone feel your pain and atone is a destructive path which can lead to further difficulties.

As the dust settles and concerned others see evidence of a sober existence, feelings of anxiety may diminish. At this stage there may be expectations of life returning to “normal.” There is often a desire for things to ‘go back to how they were.’ This generally means everything will remain as it was with the exception of the disruptive behaviour caused by drug / alcohol use. This can prove unrealistic, in terms of family gatherings, nights out, celebrations and holidays. Associations can sometime take people by surprise and not directly involve alcohol or drugs at all. Risky situations can be a place, a person a feeling, even a sound or a smell can evoke memories of a previous time and promote unhelpful thinking, which could lead to damaging behaviours and relapse.

It can be disconcerting to observe someone disconnect from old friendship groups or embark on a career change. It is crucial to remember that in the life that existed prior to problematic drinking or drug use something was not working for that person or making them happy. At Being Better we want to work with people to like themselves enough to not want to drink or use drugs.

In treatment people are encouraged to assert themselves and learn refusal skills to sustain recovery. This can be viewed by family and friends as someone being “selfish” or “difficult.” The truth of the matter is that if recovery is not prioritised, all relationships would probably be in a serious state of decline, if existing at all. This is not to say that in the quest for recovery this provides the individual free rein to ride roughshod over their nearest and dearest’s feelings.

“It’s all about them.” There can be resentment from family members when an individual has taken up focus and attention not only during their drinking days but also in their recovery. There can be a resistance to supporting the person which is rooted in feelings of “Why should I suffer because they can’t handle their drink?” Which is fine but the person in recovery has to then make decisions based on keeping themselves well, which may mean distance. It’s all about each person taking responsibility for themselves and their wellness, efforts can be made to work towards a level of acceptance about that.

There can sometimes be “tiptoeing” around the person in recovery due to not knowing what is ok and what is not ok. I have experienced this first hand with my husband, David who is in recovery. Well intentioned people have spoken in hushed tones around David, particularly in social situations, when planning an occasion or checking what is appropriate. I am often unsure if I am being tentatively approached due to my experience of working with people in addictions or due to being viewed as David’s wife and carer. Either way I now encourage people to have an upfront conversation with him, as I don’t feel it appropriate to speak on behalf of David or ‘his people.’

There may be themes and similarities amongst people in recovery but I am keen that individuals remain exactly that, unique. We all have pasts and it is crucial that people are not defined by their previous behaviour or solely their current recovery status.

“Not even wafer thin ham?” This was Nana Royle’s question to a vegetarian. Queries of a similar vein are generally asked of someone abstinent from alcohol. “Not even a drink at Christmas, Weddings, Birthdays, holidays…” “But you never had a problem with beer…” “I’m sure one won’t hurt…”

These innocent questions presented by people echo the person in recovery’s inner voice which is urging them to drink. This voice is far louder than the one saying, “No, don’t drink, remember all the problems it caused you?”

While there is no malevolent intent from people in this questioning or offering of alcohol, it can give permission to relapse. As we all know when reducing or quitting something we can decide on an unhelpful course of action on our own, without the encouragement of others.

Over the years I have been witness to various emotional states of concerned others. The most satisfying is when concerned others have a healthy respect for their loved one’s recovery achievements without their own emotional state or mood being dependant on their loved ones success or failure.

It is so important for the concerned other to honour themselves and their needs and wants, it is possible to find a way to balance this.

This may be completely alien territory to you, my suggestion would be to make sure you are informed about physical and psychological dependency or addiction first and foremost.

  • Talk to experts / professionals.

  • Speak to someone about YOUR needs and feelings.

  • Join a concerned other /carers group.

  • Research what addiction / dependency means.

  • Access social media for like minded people / groups.

  • Talk to trusted friends and family.

  • Avoid isolating yourself.

  • Be selective with advice.

  • Be responsive rather than reactive.

  • Remember it’s not your responsibility to fix someone and you have nothing to be ashamed of.

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