Your addict is newly sober! It’s what you’ve dreamed of for years and “suddenly” it is here! While they are still in treatment, you feel safe and secure. You know where they are every night. There is no worrying, no fear. But then they come home. Now what? This is part one of a series called “Living with Sobriety”. I’ll be writing at least three of these. Would love to hear your thoughts, feelings and questions. To send me your responses to this post, add your comment below or email me at email@example.com .
For the family of an addict or alcoholic, life in early sobriety can be a continuation of the roller coaster ride of addiction. Yet, it’s an entirely new experience in a very new theme park. The addict is now who they always were with one exception: no drugs or alcohol. And what an exception that is!
But if you are expecting that once your loved one stops using all your troubles are over, think again. For many families, this time could be fraught with any number of challenges, such as:
- your concern that the sobriety won’t last
- your surprise and disappointment when they want to spend most of their time with their other sober friends and very little of it with the family
- their lack of interest in family events and activities
- their lack of interest in helping out around the house
- they may have no job and no interest in getting one at least for awhile
- they may display a lack of general productivity
- they may become total workaholics to make up for lost time
- they may be indifferent to focusing on their recovery
- fill in the blanks for whatever challenges the new sobriety is bringing to your home.
So, what is a family to do?
In a family I know, when the husband first got sober 30 years ago, the wife was complaining to Frank, an AA/Alanon friend, that her husband wasn’t helping around the house the way he used to. The dishes were piling up, as was the laundry. The wife explained that she used to be able to count on him to go to the laundry room at least 3x per week and that had made her life so much easier (it later came out during his active addiction he had a habit of going to the laundry room to do lines of cocaine along with each load of clothes – but she didn’t yet know that!).
Now she had to do everything herself and all her husband wanted to do was go to meetings, hang out with his new friends, take naps, watch TV and work a few hours a day. She didn’t like it. Plus, he would not go to family events no matter how much she guilted or nagged him. The house was getting to be a mess because she wasn’t cleaning up after him and he had suddenly become a slob.
Her friend Frank’s answer, “If you want clean dishes, clean them. If you want clean laundry, wash it. If you want a neat house, pick up whatever is lying around. If you want to go to family events, go. If not, leave everything exactly where it is. What he does or does not do is none of your business. In other words,” he concluded, “Sit down, shut up, and smile.”
Frank further enlightened the wife on the first year of sobriety by explaining that it was probably taking every bit of her husband’s energy reserves to stay sober and figure out this new way of living without substances. And that if she liked the idea of living with someone sober, it would be in her best interest, for the next year, to simply do her own thing, treat him with dignity and respect, and not have any expectations of what he would or would not do to improve the quality of her life, their home or their family life.
At first, she felt angry. After all, she didn’t go through all that she had gone through to be single while married!!!
But then, she listened some more. Frank went on to explain that if she took care of herself and her responsibilities without putting pressure on her recovering husband over the course of the first year and if she went to meetings and worked her own program, she would most likely find that after a year or so, with his sobriety becoming an established habit, he would begin to reestablish himself as a contributing member of their coupleship and the family as well.
Mmmm…she thought about it and decided to take her wise friend’s words seriously. Frank had been sober for many years himself, was a member of Alanon too, and understood the dynamic of what happens in early sobriety and what it takes to make it stick.
So, she did a few things differently: she started taking care of those household chores that mattered to her and stopped nagging her husband to pull his weight, knowing that most of his energy was needed at that point in time to stay on the recovery path.
If a social or family event came up, instead of bugging him to go, she went if she wanted to and stayed home if she didn’t. When people asked where he was, she told them whatever she felt like telling them – usually something like: he couldn’t make it or he was busy or he was tired or he needed some at home time or he had a meeting – and she stopped caring about what they must be thinking or how she and her husband were ‘fitting in’ with those around them.
In other words. she got her priorities straight. She put her husband’s sobriety and the future their family first. She saw that if she was willing to be patient and keep the focus of her own “improvement advice” on herself rather than on him, she could contribute to a sober future for their family.
But, what about his behavior, you may ask. Was he this perfect sober person? Was he acting in ways that were risking his sobriety and if she saw them what did she do? Honestly, those are great questions. I’m glad you asked! There were times, at the beginning of her husband’s first sobriety and at the beginning of his latest and current sobriety which began 10 years ago, when she was worried.
When she noticed behaviors which indicated a potential back slide, what she learned over the years was that “Sit down, Shut up and Smile” (also known as the three S’s) does not apply to these situations in the same way it applies to household chores and social events.
What she learned works instead, and what I teach, is that Being a Loving Mirror (TM) is just as valid and important in early sobriety (and throughout a relationship really) as it is when an addict is using. And here is how to use it in early sobriety:
- If you notice your loved one skipping meetings, speaking in ways that are reminiscent of his addiction days, yelling at you (if for instance he was a rage-aholic during his addiction), or acting in other ways that set off an alarm that he might be sliding backwards or about to, find a quiet time to speak privately with him and let him know what you are seeing, without judgement or anger, just factually.
- In the beginning, let your partner know that you are going to be a new kind of partner to him, that you are no longer going to watch him act in ways that seemed dangerous or scary to you and ignore them, or yell about them, or beg or plead or talk about them behind his back. Instead, that you are going to name them to him objectively so he can count on having someone watching his back.
- If your loved one wants wellness and sobriety, he will probably be glad to have you do it theoretically, though, in the moment of your giving him the feedback it will probably be the last thing he wants to hear.
- That’s why the loving mirror approach is so powerful. You state what you see without emotion, provide your boundaries in the situation (if appropriate and necessary), and then stop. No long lectures, no opinions, no nagging.
- Facts, boundaries, stop.
Of course, this is a sensitive process that often requires support to learn, practice and pull off and it is what I help my clients figure out when and how to most effectively do. In many families, this happens several times in early sobriety, and your willingness to be there, without judgment, as a mirror of what is going on, will give your loved one additional nugget of feedback to more quickly get back on track.
This is not about you being so powerful. It’s about learning tools that have the best chance of making a difference. Of course, it will be up to your loved one to respond and wake back up. That part is not ever in the family member’s hands. Results are out of your hands as a family member of an addicted loved one.
Only the power to respond powerfully with recovery principles is yours to embrace. Detachment in early sobriety means letting go of the results. Sometimes, to encourage a united family approach to this work, I work with both family member and the recovering loved one, at least for a short time, to help both get on the same page vis-a-vis communication and growing together.
During your loved one’s first year of sobriety, start looking at how you want to live and begin doing so! Find some new interests and friends and begin enjoying your life more, and let go of the worry of what your loved one might be doing or not doing.
Interestingly enough, at the end of the first year, the wife I told you about above noticed a slight shift in her husband. He began to want to attend family events. He started offering to do the dishes occasionally or even cook dinner. They started to go to meetings together as well as have coffee with couples they met who were in AA and Alanon, and they started to enjoy a family life that over the years grew into something much better than what they had had before he got sober or during that first year.
In sum, the lessons of going through early sobriety with a loved one are very similar to going through active using with them:
- Keep the focus on yourself
- Treat your loved one with dignity and respect
- Be a Loving Mirror - give honest, objective, loving feedback to what you are seeing – and then let go of results and get the focus back on yourself.
- Use recovery principles to guide your life
- Let go of expectations