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Recovery when your family doesn’t understand addiction

Brad was twenty-two when he decided that his life had become outrageously unmanageable. 

He had been work to late…again, and he was tired of the complicated lies and dramatic stories needed to maintain his facade. To any outsider, he appeared successful: a college graduate, working full-time, dutifully working out at the gym five days per week. Privately, he was ripping at the internal seems, relying on stimulants for energy and alcohol for self-esteem. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the world saw these fractures. 

On his own accord, he found a therapist and began attending AA meetings. Instant relief and a sense of confidence came with these actions. Merely discussing his issues and being surrounded by others struggling with similar concerns provided comfort and normalization. For awhile, things were going well. For awhile, it all looked promising.

Three weeks into his sobriety experiment, he relapsed on alcohol and spiraled into the worst bender of his life. He stopped showing up to work, he isolated himself from everyone he cared about, and for- a brief moment- he seriously pondered if the world would be better off without him.

Humiliated and ashamed and wickedly hungover, he called his father- a man whom he had always respected, a man epitomizing strength, grit, and dignity- and confessed everything. If Brad was terrified to talk to his father, this hardly accounted for the shock that came next. 

 Son, you’re not an alcoholic or addict. You just need to control and limit yourself. 

With only three consecutive weeks of AA under his belt, Brad knew it wasn’t a control or limit issue. Unsure how to proceed- but knowing something needed to be done- he entered residential treatment on his own.

Treatment was strange. Many of his surrounding peers had been cajoled and convinced into entering rehab, thrown with ultimatums and interventions, living in family dynamics where members were willing to sacrifice just about anything in the name of a loved one’s sobriety. Others spoke about the hard boundaries given to them, about what it felt like to be cut off entirely. People spoke about communication with their families, how to improve it, how to show their parents they were worthy of being trusted, how to be better sons or daughters. 

My parents don’t seem to really care either way, Brad said. I don’t know if they even have a clue. 

In families, addicts are the ones stereotypically in denial. What happens, then, when the addict is the only one who accepts the truth?  

Even though Brad wanted treatment and wanted relief, the natural questioning, echoed and reinforced by his father’s nonchalance, ensued. Do I really have a problem? Wouldn’t people be more worried if I actually had a problem? Am I just overreacting? Do I just need more self-control? 

Any drug or alcohol dependence assessment would squash these doubts, would confirm medical diagnoses for addiction. But science rarely provides sustained relief, and Brad struggled to feel validated by his own struggles by the people he respected the most in the world- his parents. 

There was loneliness, and that was painstaking. Where other parents were praising their children on thirty-day chips, his father was voicing his confusion as to why his son really needed treatment in the first place. We could call it denial or ignorance, we could call it his worldview or opinion, we could even call it as a societal perception or influence, but regardless of the core reason, Brad’s father was simply not able to provide the support he wanted.

I don’t know why they can’t just understand…that I can’t just drink like a normal person. Believe me, I’ve tried…I wish I could! 

After the initial questioning waned and the understanding that yes, I do have a problem, and yes, I’m in the right place settled in, there was anger, and I remember Brad’s anger. I remember how he resented other clients when they received care packages filled with handwritten letters and candies and cigarettes. I remember how he seethed when others complained about their parents’ overprotectiveness or overbearing, about how they wanted to visit too often or talk on the phone everyday. I remember his meticulous seemingly-revengeful plots surrounded with the motives of, I’ll show him and How dare he question me? 

I remember when the anger reached its finish line, when he finally cried, when the dam concealing most all of his emotion burst, and he was finally able to identify the foundation of pain and misunderstanding he had experienced for most of his childhood life.

There was fear. There was isolation. There was a wounded soul, desperate for support from his caretakers, desperate for validation that, yes, his problems mattered.

Recovery is challenging, and recovery without the understanding or compassion or patience the process entails packs on even more challenge. 

In the ideal world, everyone would be supportive of addiction and treatment. Everyone in the family would be on the same page, uplifting, motivating, and loving each other. The process would be linear and straightforward, calculated with precision, accounting for every member’s response and reaction.

In reality, this perfection never happens. And that dynamic- the messy and blurred lines, the unpredictable structure and familial movements, also needs to be okay.

In our work, I focused on his own personal accountability, on the serenity prayer of practicing the things he could not control, finding courage to change the things he could, and obtaining the wisdom to know the difference. It was simple, but it was essential. We couldn’t change his parents, even if we wanted to, even it felt unfair or painful, but we could focus on creating a new narrative and way of living. And, he needed to carry on these principles with grace and willingness. He needed to learn that, no matter what parents he had or didn’t have, he could still have the recovery he wanted. He could still have freedom. 

Recovery, as Brad would continue to realize, also entails acceptance, and a whole lot of it. Acceptance for addiction, acceptance for its ramifications and risks, acceptance for the loved ones who care or don’t care or exist somewhere in between, and acceptance for the process it takes to work through its messy trenches.

Today, Brad is sober. For what it’s worth, his parents are proud of him. They still don’t quite understand addiction or treatment, but they realize that his journey is important to him. As for Brad? He feels more love towards his family than ever before…even if he has to occasionally remind them that he cannot drink, even just one beer, even just one time.

*While these are based on true experiences, all reasonable efforts have been made by this writer to protect utmost client and treatment confidentiality. Because of this, names, ages, features, and identifying details in this piece have been changed, omitted, and/or embellished.