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Supporting a Loved One on the Road to Recovery

No one is really prepared for the first time they see their loved one struggling with the consequences of a drug addiction. For me, it was Thanksgiving 3 years ago. For both myself and my parents, it brought a string of very intense and unfamiliar emotions. Concern for my brother. Fear for his health. His life.  Rushing to the hospital, not understanding the crisis that had been happening under our noses for so long, finally manifesting itself very clearly on what was supposed to be a happy holiday-day.

Like all roads to recovery, and all journeys we face, it has not been a straight one for my brother. Numerous relapses, rehab programs. After a childhood of trauma, and a lifetime of denial, my brother turned to drugs to cope with the emotions he didn’t want to, or know how to, deal with. And after each relapse, and each heartbreaking situation where my brother has landed himself somewhere under the influence to the point he seems like a different person – its easy to slip into a very hopeless place.

It’s easy for us to immediately turn inward when we have someone we love turn to substance abuse. We wonder what could we have done to be better parents? A better sister? How could I have protected him? How could he be in this much pain and I not see it? Did I fail? How could I have stopped this from happening? Should I have told my parents earlier about things I thought were just normal teenage partying? At what point did it turn into something he had lost control over? Was it my fault?

The issue with thinking inwardly during all this is that we make their substance abuse about ourselves. We struggle to give up control when it comes to the lives of family and those we love. We want to shake them, to lecture them, to “make” them do the right thing and to stop the thing that is hurting them – and hurting us. We slip into a place of letting them have control over our emotions. Our happiness is now co-dependent on their sobriety. We give them control over our own mental wellbeing. Not only is this very harmful for us – it does nothing to aide in their recovery. It can harm it. And that is not a place we want to be for ourselves, or our loved one.

I let my co-dependency on my brother’s sobriety slip out of control.

I was so angry all of the time. I allowed my lack of understanding, and my frustration over his choices, have control over my life. And it was not until I had my own breakdown that I realized I had let things get to a point where I was not okay. I forced myself to start attending a support group. I learned that in order for him to recover, I have to as well. I remember hearing that the first time, I was like, what do I have to recover from? I’m not the one who has a drug problem. The first step of Families Anonymous is that “We admitted we were powerless over drugs and other people’s lives- that our lives had become unmanageable”. After three years of constant, obsessive worry for my younger brother – my life was unmanageable. And at the end of the day – my brother is trying to make the right choices. He fails – just like I do. And how is my constant, fierce anger and resentment going to change his mind, or help him in trying to make the right choice when he wants to turn to drugs?

Learning our role in recovery is difficult. Because in order to support and aide in their recovery, we have to surrender. And for myself, surrendering my control felt like I was giving up or losing hope. And that’s something I am still learning. I’m still on the first step. And if he has another relapse, there’s no doubt I’ll be very angry. And that’s okay – for us to feel anger or sadness because we are hurt and scared. But what I do know is that I have reached a place where I am learning how to manage that anger and not taking it out on someone I love dearly who already is angry at themselves. Who is so angry and hurt that using drugs seems like the only answer. I know that my anger will not show him that there is another way.

Substance abuse harms the entire family. And successful recovery from that abuse is an entire family effort.

Your support does not equal your control. Your support can and should be what you can give your loved one happily and safely for all parties involved. This can be anything from basic encouragement, participating in their recovery steps, to willingness to adapt your home to an environment free of any substances. Substance abuse can be chronic, and the support that is needed from family can be a lifelong role in long term recovery.

Family support and involvement decreases the likelihood of a relapse. Support can also provide a safe place for conversation. Many of those who abuse drugs feel extreme shame and self-resentment – having an environment where that person feels comfortable sharing their experience or when they want to use drugs again can be crucial in their recovery. You can’t expect them to talk to you when they want to turn to drugs if you are going to shame them or react in a way that isn’t supportive of finding a different solution.

Recovery is a two-way street and families must work together to develop new, healthy boundaries and strategies that encourages recovery on both ends. We must learn the difference between helping one another and trying to control others actions. We must focus on our own growth and cultivating gratitude in order to play a positive role in supporting our loved ones who are hurting and need our compassion through their own pain. There is no easy path for either party, but the path is worth it to heal – individually and as a family.

The Mental Health Association offers all services to eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin or disability.