Addiction is a chronic disease that has the potential to negatively affect a person’s life and health. One of the casualties of a battle with addiction is the trail of damaged relationships it leaves in its wake. With the right kind of help, repairing relationships after addiction is possible.
Addiction: A Family Disease
When one person in the family develops a substance abuse issue, it doesn’t solely affect them. No matter what their particular drug of choice happens to be, their addiction is a family disease, since it causes stress to the people living in the family home and to those people closest to the addict.
This disease has the potential to interfere with normal family life and routines. A person living with an addiction may behave in an erratic manner, depending on whether they are sober, drunk or high, or recovering from a time when they were drinking or using drugs.
Someone who is in the throes of an active addiction may lie about how much they are drinking, how many drugs they are taking or even that they are taking drugs at all. This is one of the symptoms of the disease, and it’s quite common for addicts to manipulate loved ones if it means they can get resources (money, food, a place to stay, cell phone, etc.) that will support the addiction.
Family members may also react to a loved one’s addiction by stepping in to help. Their motives may be for the best of intentions, at least at first. It can take time for a family to realize that they are dealing with a loved one who has developed an addiction to drugs or alcohol. The early stages of the disease can be subtle. Addicts can be very good at persuading family members that an episode where they were under the influence was an isolated one and that it will never happen again.” Unfortunately, in the case of someone who is living with an addiction, it always happens again.
Not everyone in the family will agree with trying to help the addicted family member. There may be people who think that taking a tough stance is the way to handle the situation. When family members disagree about the best way to deal with someone who has an addiction issue, conflict ensues and the person with the addiction is left to continue drinking or using drugs while the discussion or arguing goes on. The addict realizes that as long as the family is in turmoil, they’ll be able to feed their addiction relatively undisturbed. They are not going to allow anything to get in the way of feeding the addiction.
Number of Families Affected by Addiction
Addiction is, unfortunately, all too common today. Families dealing with a loved one struggling with this chronic disease may feel as though they are on their own, but these statistics may help to put the issue into a different perspective.
- About 21.5 million Americans have a substance abuse disorder according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. This figure applies to people aged 12 and older.
- Of this number, about 1.9 million people developed an addiction to prescription pain medicines and 586,000 had an addiction to heroin.
- Approximately 23 percent of those people who use heroin develop an addiction to opioids (the class of pain medications that includes morphine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, codeine, and oxycodone).
- In 2013, the number of Americans either dependent on alcohol or had problems related to alcohol use was 17.3 million, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
Rebuilding Relationships in Recovery
The key to healing from addiction and rebuilding trust after the addict in your family has hurt all of you, let you down, disappointed you and caused chaos more times than you can count is a drug and alcohol treatment program. Professional help is needed for people struggling with drug addiction to learn how to live a sober lifestyle and learn how to live without their drug of choice.
Part of this process is helping addicts come to terms with the fact that their lives don’t immediately become better once they stop using chemicals. Clients in recovery have to take responsibility for and deal with, the aftermath of events which occurred while they were still using drugs or alcohol. It was not their choice to use while they were in the cycle of addiction, but the harm caused to relationships with intimate partners, family members and close friends still needs to be dealt with. While in a drug and alcohol treatment center, the staff and counselors can help clients using several different techniques.
- Set Realistic Expectations
A newly sober client may be feeling positive about the progress they’ve made in early sobriety and ready for a fresh start in a relationship. They may not be focused on the past, where there likely was a pattern of several years of negative behavior in the relationship. These issues cannot be resolved immediately, even if the client offers a sincere apology for past actions. Any action taken toward rebuilding the relationship is a victory, and these small steps need to be celebrated.
- Rebuilding Trust Will Take Time
After a pattern where trust has been betrayed (and likely several times), rebuilding it is going to be a lengthy process. Someone who is living with an addiction will always put feeding their disease first. To ensure that they keep a steady supply of their drug of choice, they are prepared to lie, cheat and steal if it means they can get their next fix or drink. This pattern is also used to hide the addiction (or the extent of it) from others to keep it going.
- Learn Healthy Communication Methods
Communication is a two-way street, and it includes both talking and listening. Many people, when they are listening to someone else speak, are not really hearing what the other person is saying. They are waiting for a break in the conversation so that they can make their next point. This is not really the best atmosphere in which to have a healthy discussion.
During treatment, a client will be able to learn effective ways to communicate with others and how to truly listen to what another person is saying. There are healthy ways to deal with conflicts that don’t end up with someone feeling as though they “need” to tune out by using drugs or having a drink. Clients will also learn that it’s possible to resolve issues without resorting to emotional blackmail, trying to “guilt” someone into doing what you want, storming out and disappearing or any of the other strategies they may have been using in the past.
Friends and family will feel more comfortable about expressing themselves directly if they feel they will be heard. Effective communication techniques lower the risk of getting into petty disputes and teach clients what to do if the conversation gets too heated. They’ll learn strategies for either diffusing the situation by changing the subject or by withdrawing from the conversation without allowing it to escalate.
- Eliminate Unhealthy Relationships
Not all relationships in a client’s life are healthy and positive ones. The bad ones won’t contribute to a healthy recovery. In fact, they’ll end up doing just the opposite —they’ll become a reason for a client to start to slip toward a relapse. People in a client’s life who are still using drugs and alcohol no longer have a place in his or her life. Neither do those who are, or have been, abusive toward the client.
Codependent people present another problem for clients in recovery. Some family members can take on a role where they “need” to look after the person with the addiction and want to shield them from the consequences of their actions. Once a client moves into recovery and is learning to take responsibility for their own actions from the past and to move forward in a chemical-free lifestyle, there is no room for someone to be making excuses for them anymore. The co-dependent family member needs to seek counseling to learn new behavior patterns.
Types of Relationships That Need Repair
Addiction is an equal-opportunity damager and destroyer of relationships. All of a client’s closest personal relationships have the potential to be affected by substance abuse. It drives a wedge firmly between the people a person has pledged to hold nearest and dearest.
There is always hope to fix strained or damaged relationships, though. It’s never too early or too late to try to get back on track after a loved one has struggled with addiction. If friends and family members can learn about this disease, it does help to give them a better understanding of what their loved one has lived through. That is not the same thing as providing an addicted person with an excuse for all bad behavior committed while they were using; the addict still needs to be responsible for that when it comes to repairing his or her personal relationships.
- Spouse or Partner
Trust is the foundation of the relationship between romantic partners. When addiction appears, it can wear down trust over time or shatter it all at once, depending on circumstances. Once compromised, trust is very challenging to get back. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
It’s possible to re-establish trust after it has been broken, but it takes a long time. A recovering addict should expect to have to come clean about everything they have been holding back from their spouse or partner as a starting point. From there, the spouse or partner will be the one to set some ground rules about gaining trust back.
Parents and grandparents are usually a person’s first source of physical, emotional and financial support. From the time we are born, we learn to lean on our parents. If we have a good relationship with them, they are the people we know we can turn to during difficult times and they will always have our back.
This urge to help means that parents may feel angry, hurt and betrayed by an adult child who is living with a substance abuse issue. If a parent or parents have provided financial or practical support, only to realize they‘ve been helping to feed the addiction, they may feel foolish or that they had a hand in keeping their child sick, even though that was not their intention. Their adult child may still lie and steal from them, in spite of the help that the parents have provided since they’re compelled to feed their addiction.
Children whose parents are addicts have relationship issues that need addressing as well. Very young children may not realize that their parent is behaving in a different manner from other mothers or fathers. As they get older, they may start to understand that their parent has an issue with keeping promises or being on time. The realization that the problem stems from drug or alcohol addiction will likely only come later in childhood.
Getting clean and sober is essential to having a good, honest relationship with children of any age. The younger the child, the easier it will be to get the relationship back on track. With older children, it will take time and patience to show the child that this change is permanent and that the parent will be keeping their word about being around for the child going forward.
Relationships with friends have likely suffered because of addiction, no matter how long it has existed. Some friends may have (knowingly or unknowingly) enabled the addiction to continue. Once an addict enters recovery, they will need to evaluate their friendships and eliminate the unhealthy ones.
It’s entirely possible for a recovered addict to rebuild their healthy friendships. The friends will have to adapt to a new, sober lifestyle for the recovering addict. Some friendships will not survive, even with the best of intentions, and will fall by the wayside. Others will evolve and become stronger.
Tips for Recovering Addicts to Rebuild Relationships
The perfect time to start rebuilding relationships with family and friends is in treatment. Making the commitment to get well means making important changes in all aspects of your life. These tips can help you to improve your personal relationships.
- Reach Out to Those People You Want to Reconnect With
The first step in mending fences is to extend the proverbial olive branch. If you are not sure how a former acquaintance will receive a phone call, or you want some time to consider what you would like to say, send an e-mail or a letter. Tell the person you are in treatment or have completed treatment for your addiction, as the case may be. Let them know you are in the process of getting your life back on track and that you would like them to be part of it.
- Be Honest and Direct About What You Want
The people who knew you when you were using no doubt got used to you denying that you had an addiction or trying to use them in some way. When you communicate with them now, your communication is going to be direct and clear. Apologize for what has happened between you in the past (be as specific as you want or feel you need to be) and ask for forgiveness.
- Don’t Beat Yourself Up Over Past Events
Once you have asked for forgiveness over past events, draw a line under them. You don’t have the power to change anything that has already taken place. You can move forward from this point, though, and make better decisions in your relationships from now on.
- Make a Point of Initiating Contact With Family and Friends
Your family and friends may be hesitant about contacting you in the early days of your recovery. They may not know what to expect or understand what it means to you. Take the initiative and contact them to show them that you are still the same person as you were, but a much healthier version than they have seen for some time. You still have a sense of humor and you can still have fun, you are simply free from chemicals.
- Keep Attending Meetings/Counseling Sessions
Friends and family members need to see you “walking the walk” to demonstrate that you are serious about your recovery. While you do not need to discuss what happens during a counseling session and anything that occurs at a 12-step meeting is confidential, you can mention to them that you are continuing your treatment regularly after completing your inpatient drug and alcohol program.
- Be Patient
It will take time for your family and friends to learn to trust you again. They may not be able to visualize how a relatively short time spent at a treatment program for substance abuse would be able to make a change when the tactics they have been trying (sometimes for several years) have not been effective. As you and your family and friends navigate situations where you are able to deal with them honestly and directly, trust will develop over time.
Repairing Relationships Broken by Addiction
If you have a loved one who is living with an addiction and you want to repair the broken relationship, here are some suggestions to keep in mind:
- Try to Separate the Disease From the Person
You wouldn’t blame a loved one if they got any other chronic, relapsing illness. Addiction is a disease that affects the way a person thinks and reasons. Once it takes hold, satisfying the urge to use or to drink comes first, and people will do anything to get their drug of choice. Addiction has no logic, morals or reason; it only wants what it wants.
- Put a Stop-Loss Order on Past Events
At a certain point, decide that you are going to have to stop making your loved one pay for the events that occurred in the past. Neither one of you can go back and change them, nor does holding them over their head do anything for your current relationship. Accept what happened and if you have received an apology and/or the sincere offer to make amends, decide to close the door on the issue forever. Never bring it up again, no matter how hurt or upset you become later on. It needs to remain resolved.
- Start Living in the Here and Now
Deal with current issues as they come up. Allow yourself to get angry, frustrated or whatever. Have all the human emotions you normally have. Your loved one who is in recovery is not a fragile human being. Do express good feelings, too. When issues come up, deal with them promptly, and then move on.
Don’t let things pile up in your relationship until you’re ready to explode. It’s not healthy for either person. If you’re going to fight, make sure that you fight fair. Don’t bring up the fact that your loved one has a certain point of view because they are an addict or in recovery. Going for help is a positive thing and should never be used against someone to tear them down.
Get the Help You and Your Family Deserve
We believe in treating not just the addiction but the relationships between loved ones as well. If you or a loved one needs help for substance abuse, contact JourneyPure today. Get the help you and your family deserve.
Chris Clancy is the in-house Content Manager for JourneyPure’s Digital Marketing team, where he gets to explore a wide variety of substance abuse- and mental health-related topics. He has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist and researcher, with strong working knowledge of hospital systems, health insurance, content strategy, and public relations. He lives in Nashville with his wife and two kids.