Talking with your Family about Addiction

You may have finally come to terms with it for yourself, but how do you talk about your problem with your family? Maybe you’ve finally reached some sort of acceptance about your alcoholism or substance abuse, but that doesn’t mean that your family is ready to accept or even support you.

All the shame, guilt and anger you might have felt back when they first tried to talk about it with you, and all the negative interactions you may have had since then might need to be dealt with before they can find their way into accepting and supporting you in recovery. However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t open the dialog and start reaching out to them. As you heal together, you may well find that they are your biggest allies.

How should you go about having this conversation? To start with, pick your time and place mindfully. Match the time and place and depth of information you provide to your audience: your talk with your spouse or parents should be very different from your talk with your young (school age) children. Talking with teens would be different yet again. Choose a time when your family members aren’t stressed or busy – don’t approach your wife while she’s getting three kids out the door for school or trying to balance the check book. Give yourself ample time and privacy, and if you suspect that the conversation might be very difficult or upsetting, try arranging it at a time when your sponsor or pastor is available to you for support.

Make sure that you are also in a good frame of mind, and demonstrating good self care when you approach your family. Set yourself up to be patient, receptive, and calm by making sure that you are in overall good shape: well rested, not hungry, cranky, or stressed about work or other annoyances. The more that you can show them that you are fine, the more that they will trust you that things are different now.

Ask God for Patience, Strength and Honesty

Take some time to consider your old habits and patterns before talking with your family. When you were drinking or drugging, were you quick to get angry? Were you often sarcastic or belittling? Or perhaps you were overly emotional or maudlin whenever they tried to talk to you. Be scathingly honest with yourself – because this habitual pattern of yours is what your family is at least subconsciously expecting from you. When you share with them the truth about your addiction and recovery, they will expect you to fly off the handle or wallow in self pity, or whatever your past pattern might have been. Be ready to not only tell them about recovery, but also show them how different you are. Actions will speak louder than words and recovery is all about breaking the thought, belief, and behavior patterns that support using drugs or alcohol.

Stay calm and really listen to them. They might say things that are hard to hear, but part of being in recovery is staying present even when things get uncomfortable. Listen without judgment, and notice how you are tempted to react. Take long deep slow breaths if you find yourself getting upset, and if you need to, say what you’re feeling (use “I statements”) and ask to take a break from the conversation to collect your thoughts and calm down. Staying calm and really listening to others is a key aspect of recovery.

You might find that your family doesn’t believe you, or that they have misconceptions about what addiction is. Be patient and provide information if they can understand it (in the case of children), or if they are receptive to learning more. Prejudices and negative attitudes about addiction still survive despite increasing medical information on the subject being widely available. Many people think people become addicted to substances because they are “bad” in some way – lazy or “weak.” You may have to hear your loved ones say this to you, and your job will be to respect their opinion, and work to educate them. Again, your doctor, your therapist, your sponsor, and your pastor may all be important teammates and allies in this effort.

To build empathy for them, try to see your own life and actions through their eyes. They may have witnessed you in great pain or distress, or they may have been inconvenienced or harmed by your choices or actions while you were using. In some cases, they may have had to involve police or courts to stay safe from the person you became while you were using. It will take time for them to trust you again, even if all you are asking is to be heard. Try to remember that they loved you and were hurt by you when you were using and they may be self protective and angry for a while. Your patience and your love will go a long way towards healing these relationships and rebuilding a strong, sober, happy family.