Whether you are close or estranged or somewhere in between, your family may loom large in the early days of your recovery. There may come a moment when you have to decide how much you want to share with your immediate and extended family members about your recovery journey.
On the one hand, the more open you are, the less opportunity there is for misunderstandings and rumors to circulate among your relatives. On the other hand, your recovery is just that: yours. Decisions about what and when to share about your recovery with your family are yours and yours alone. But because addiction can affect an entire family, some conversations are likely unavoidable, so it is best to be prepared.
First Decision: What Are You Willing to Talk About?
Every situation is different, but it is common for family members to have some level of involvement in a person’s treatment and recovery. Because of this, you may want to make a list of topics that you are willing—or even need—to talk about.
For example, you might want to make amends—particularly if you are participating in a 12-Step program. Making an effort to acknowledge mistakes and correct them is a foundational part of 12-Step programs, and it may very well be the case that family members are among those who have suffered as a result of your substance abuse disorder. Thinking clearly about how to apologize and how to right past wrongs will help you succeed when the moment comes for difficult conversations.
Perhaps your recovery would be best supported if others made an effort to make amends to you. Issues of neglect, dysfunction, or abuse can be contributing factors when it comes to substance abuse. Part of your recovery may include addressing those issues head on with family members in the hope of moving forward together. Again, thinking through potentially challenging conversations in advance increases the chances you will make progress with your family members.
You may also want to enlist the support of family members who can help you, for example, avoid triggers that might lead to relapse. Being upfront about what sort of support you need is critical.
Second Decision: How Will You Handle Unsolicited Advice?
It would be nice if you could count on your family members to listen to your apologies, your concerns, and your needs without replying with a steady stream of well-intentioned but possibly ill-informed advice. But that’s unlikely. Remind yourself to be gracious with your family, but remember that your official treatment plan is your guide to recovery—not the musings of your parents, cousins, or siblings.
One potential approach might be to point members of your family toward resources that might help them better understand what you are going through and how they can help. Those resources may include scientific studies focused on addiction and recovery or books like It Takes a Family: A Cooperative Approach to Lasting Sobriety by Debra Jay.
Pointing your family toward neutral resources created by experts may help them realize that overcoming addiction is not a matter of taking the advice of well-meaning relatives. Once they have access to some expertise, they may be less inclined to offer advice you haven’t asked for.
Third Decision: What Are Your Boundaries?
With a sense of what you are willing to discuss and how you might handle a variety of reactions, you might be feeling ready to jump into conversations with family members.
If so, remember that you still have the right to establish boundaries. Your family members may have questions, but you can decide whether to answer those questions and in what level of detail. It is always appropriate to say something like, “I’m not able to answer that right now.” This approach may help you avoid responding in a defensive manner or in a way that implies you are blaming others for their failure to understand the situation fully and immediately.
Remember, you are not obligated to remain in an unending conversation while you are peppered with questions. Say what you have to say, answer the questions you feel comfortable answering, and ask for the support you need. But don’t spend time or energy trying to manage the reactions of your family members or exhaustively answer their questions or absorb any anger they might direct your way in the aftermath of the discussion. End any conversation that isn’t productive. Perhaps with time, a follow-up conversation can begin to bridge any gap that can’t be overcome initially.
Remember: Your Journey Is Yours
As we’ve noted, your family members are likely to have lots of questions, emotions, and advice when you open up to them about your recovery journey. In the best cases, those things will come from a place of love and a desire to help. But even if they come from a place of anger or hurt, your responsibility is to ensure you are staying on the path toward lasting sobriety.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration offers 10 principles to undergird a healthy recovery process. One of them is a simple reminder: “Recovery occurs via many pathways.”
Make sure you find the right pathway for you. If you can, invite your family members to walk it with you. But never forget that you are the one holding the compass.
Talk with Us About Talking with Your Family
At Bel Aire Recovery Center in Kansas, we know all about the difficult conversations that are often part of the recovery process. We’re ready to help you access the resources that can make conversations with family members just a little bit easier. Clear communication can clear the path to lasting sobriety.