Recovery Romance? Ah — Maybe Not

Valentine’s Day is one of our oldest Western holidays, dating back to the 5th Century. Valentine was executed for performing the wrong marriages, subsequently declared a saint, and ever since we have associated his feast day with love, marriage and general togetherness.

We’re told “No relationships in the first year” and here it is, the Relationship Day, so I thought I’d discuss relationships in recovery.

  • We don’t know how to have healthy relationships with ourselves, so we certainly aren't capable of having one with someone else
  • Nothing could possibly distract us more from our program of recovery
  • Relationships trigger the “I want, I want, I want” reflex that all addicts have in abundance
  • For most of us, it was so long since we had a relationship sober (if ever), that we may come to feel that we have to have drugs or alcohol in order to perform.

Lust is a powerful force. It’s intended to make us bond with another human being for purposes of procreation (that’s science, not religion), and as such there are few emotions more consuming. It’s supposed to distract us from just about everything except eating, sleeping and running away from loud noises in the bushes. It acts on our brains and bodies in the same regions and in the same way that drugs do: massive doses of dopamine and lots of “feel good” when we get what we want.

There is a reason that relationships are one of the primary causes of relapse: we are so driven that we can easily convince ourselves that “It won’t happen to me. I can have a relationship and we will recover together.” And we’re so used to having our way, convincing ourselves that it’s worth the price, that we do dumb things almost as a matter of habit. Recovery requires focus. It doesn’t need any more changes in brain chemistry than we’ve got already.

When we’re pursuing that particular pleasure, common sense takes a back seat — just as it does when we’re seeking our drugs of choice. People in early recovery can’t afford to be distracted, and can’t afford to let common sense out of the driver's seat. If we can stay clean and sober, get our act together, and learn how to live a healthy life, we have a really good shot at someday having a healthy relationship as well.  Later.

Think about it: who would want to have a relationship with someone who's as messed up as a person in early recovery?  How messed up would they have to be?  Besides, people change when they get clean. They change again while they’re recovering — often several times. Established relationships fall apart, often as not. The chances of a rehab relationship or a recovery romance working are vanishingly small. The question we need to be asking ourselves is not “Will this work,” but rather “Is getting laid worth my sobriety?”

That’s the bottom line, folks. Valentine’s Day or not.

Support Groups For Families And Friends

In the previous installment of this series on recovery programs, I discussed some of the reasons why family members, friends and even employers of folks addicted to drugs (including alcohol) may need to seek some support for themselves.  In this one, we'll talk about support groups.

These issues can all be lumped under the term “codependency.” However, the word has become so over-used, both inside and outside the recovery community, that many people tend to blow off discussions about it. That’s a shame, because addiction to alcohol and other drugs affects practically everyone in our society in one way or another. From time to time we all need to deal with an addict “up close and personal,” and most of us have no idea how to go about it. That lack of understanding can do considerable damage, to the addict and ourselves.

I’ve written about enabling several times on this blog, and you can find some of those articles here. The bottom line, however, is simply that “helping” an addict in any way that makes it easier for her to live her life while continuing her addiction is enabling the continuation of the addiction. We addicts are experts at using charm, lies, guilt and anger to influence the people around us. Unless those folks come to understand the way we operate, and the truly effective ways of helping us, they are only helping us down the road to jails, institutions and death.

Effective intervention with an addict or substance abuser, if indicated, requires the help of a professional as a sort of referee, and to assist us in making plans. However, the best guidance for families and others dealing with addicts often comes from other folks who have gone through the same process of learning about their own denial and how to work through it and other codependency issues.

How many times have you tried to open up with a friend, only to get a lot of unwanted advice from a person who clearly has no idea what you’re going through? Or, how many times have you wanted someone to talk to — someone who can understand — and not known where to find one. The support groups for families and friends are a safe source of understanding and useful information about subjects that are often family secrets, unspoken by anyone.

The first such support group was Al-Anon, founded by Lois Wilson and Anne Smith, wives of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. Now formally known as Al-Anon Family Groups, and made up of the original Ala-Anon plus Alateen (for kids of alcoholics), it is still the largest and widest-spread fellowship of its kind. Over the 50+ years of its existence, the collective wisdom of the fellowship in how to remain sane while loving a drunk has become enormous — and invaluable.

Other groups, no less important, that have sprouted off of Al-Anon include

  • Nar-Anon for those affected by people addicted to drugs other than alcohol
  • Gam-Anon for people close to compulsive gamblers
  • Codependents Anonymous (CODA), dedicated to developing healthy relationships of all kinds
  • COSA, a recovery program for men and women whose lives have been affected by someone else's compulsive sexual behavior
  • Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), for adults dealing with family of origin issues

and several dozen others. The list above is for purposes of illustration, and not to imply endorsement of any one program over another.

These groups, along with many others, are easily available by searching for “family+support+(your+issue+here)”. Example: family+support+sex+addict gives us a huge selection of support groups, resources, and even online meetings for people dealing with someone else’s sexual behavior.

By no means should we ignore online supports. Often we are unable to find an appropriate meeting, embarrassed to open up in front of others, or perhaps we are even ashamed to be seen entering one. There are literally hundreds of online support groups for every sort of addiction and families of addicts. Two minutes of searching can turn up the one we need to get started on the road to emotional help, and to the skills needed to deal with our addicted loved ones.  We ought always to keep in mind, however, that sometimes there is nothing like talking face to face, or a warm hug, from someone who truly understands.

Our first responsibility is to ourselves.  We need to find ourselves in order to live our own lives.  We can't help anyone until we face that truth and act on it.    We can make changes only in ourselves.  We may, or may not, be able to influence our addict, but we need to admit to ourselves that the problem is partially ours, let go of our useless attempts to control, and learn to detach with love.

For our own sakes, and theirs.

My thanks to Michele O. Webb CAP, ICADC for her assistance.


Families Need Support Too

We always encourage family members to seek counseling, because active addicts, along with inactive ones who are not in recovery (dry drunks), make everyone around them a little bit crazy.  The uncertainty, disappointments, emotional and — often — physical mistreatment, and the other aspects of loving an addict are not the ingredients of good emotional and physical health.  And then there’s the anger.

Anger is a perfectly normal emotion with an essential purpose: it keeps us from becoming incapacitated by fear.  Along with denial, it gives us the energy to work our way past the obstacles that we run across in life.  If we believed every negative thing that was said about us, or if we allowed ourselves to be stymied by the many obstacles that crop up in our day to day existence, we’d never get anything done.  

These things hinder us not only because they’re in our way, but because they bring fear along with them — fear of failure, fear that we’ll look bad, fear that we won’t measure up to our own self-image or the expectations of others, and fear of economic, social, or physical injury.  Anger and its little sisters indignation and annoyance give us the energy to overcome those fears, big and small, real or imagined, and to move onward.  To put it another way, no one functions well when they feel powerless or vulnerable, and anger helps us feel powerful.

Of course when anger gets out of control (rage), or we allow it to become habitual (resentments), it causes problems.  This can happen because we enjoy the feeling of power, or — because one of the characteristics of anger is tunnel-vision — it can help us overlook our own part in things, and make it easier to shift blame to the other party.  Anger depersonalizes our adversaries and makes it easier for us to justify our own behavior toward them.  All of these things have their uses, but they can obviously be seriously misused, as well.  Furthermore, over time, these ways of thinking about individuals and the world can become ingrained, and extremely difficult to change when they are no longer of use.  

Finally — but by no means least important — the physical changes that are produced by unresolved anger (undischarged energy) can be long-lasting and can create physical problems that are often fatal.  Stress-related diseases such as cardiovascular complications, eating disorders, other addictive disorders, diabetes, depression, frequent illness, and non-specific pain issues such as chronic head, neck and back pain can all be results of unresolved anger.

Anger doesn’t go away by itself.  If it isn’t discharged by physical and/or emotional release, or if it isn’t dug out, examined, and allowed to run its course, it will continue to produce stress and make life difficult.  This is especially difficult for family members of alcoholics and other addicts, because it isn’t “nice” to be angry in our culture, especially at family members, and practically never at authority figures lest they discharge some of their own anger issues in our direction.  Children are required to respect older people, for example, even when they have irrevocably proven themselves unworthy.  Talk about powerless…

So, families of addicts almost always have anger issues to address.  There are probably other things as well.  Children, in particular, have a tendency to blame their parents' problems on themselves, and those things need to be addressed.  Emotionally abused family members can add self-esteem issues to their anger, and everyone has resentments: birthdays missed, money misspent, obligations unmet…and on, and on.

It’s imperative that these things be put to rights.  Whether or not the alcoholic/addict stays clean, whether or not the family stays together, every one of the members have their lives irrevocably changed.  Unless the damage of those changes is dealt with, none of them will have the lives they deserve.  In the next article, we’ll discuss some options.


Why Treatment? Why Meetings? Isn’t Family Enough Support?

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts in which we hope to acquaint our readers with some of the details surrounding the programs that we recommend.  There are a variety of programs, but because we and most other facilities shape our treatment plans around the 12 Step fellowships, those are the ones on which we will concentrate.

People in early recovery sometimes face resistance from family and significant others. It often takes the form of questions like, “You have us for support; why do you need those meetings? Aren’t we enough?” Another approach (that addicts often ask themselves) is “You’ve spent all that time away from us, and before that you neglected us. Isn’t it time you suited up and made up for all the time you missed and the ways we needed you?”

The reality is that we can’t “make up for” anything. All we can do is try to keep it from happening again, and live the rest of our lives looking forward, not backward. But those are perfectly reasonable questions from loved ones who don’t understand the dynamics of addiction and recovery. They’ve been neglected, emotionally deprived and abused. They’ve spent uncounted hours worrying about someone vitally important to them, their addict has cost them much pain, and they’ve paid a huge price in a variety of other ways.

Now their loved one tells them that they’ll be going to treatment, living in a halfway house, going to meetings, and perhaps staying in another part of the country for months. They feel disappointed, angry, rejected, taken advantage of once again — but mostly rejected. The person they thought was going to be returning to them has other ideas. Why does the addict need other people? They know her best, what better support could she need?

The answer is completely summed up in the previous sentence: “They know her best….” The people who know us best are almost never the best supports — at least in the beginning. Why? Too much emotional static. Too many recent hurts. Too many old resentments. Too many habitual ways of reacting to each other. In short, too much history.

We talk about folks “pushing each other’s buttons.” Our families and friends are the people who hard-wired our buttons, and we wired theirs. We can play symphonies on one another’s buttons, and we do — through habit, through anger, through frustration, through simple thoughtlessness. We know how to get under each other’s skin, and the closer we are, the easier it is.

These are dangerous waters for people in early recovery, because the buttons that urge us to take a drink or have some other drug are hard-wired as well. Research has shown that a picture of a guy standing on a street corner can trigger the urge to use in a crack addict. Just a photo of a guy who may have some drugs to sell! Other research has shown the same responses to liquor stores, places where the addict drank or used, pictures of drug paraphernalia, and so forth. Addicts in early recovery have not learned the skills that allow them to deflect these urges and bypass these temptations.

It’s been just short of 20 years since I used tobacco. A couple of months ago, during a routine but stressful, situation, I found myself patting my shirt pocket where the pack of cigarettes used to reside. I had to laugh at myself. It’s been a long time, I have healthy habits that kick in in those sorts of situations, and I understand the psychological and physical responses that lead to reactions like that, but would I have lit up if there had been a pack there? I don’t think so, but I’m not going to start carrying one around to find out.

Stress, in its various forms, is a major cause of relapse. Addicts who have relapsed and survived tell us that those are the sorts of situations that triggered their use. Not great tragedies, but the little things: the everyday tensions, marital spats, seeing friends drink or use other drugs, driving through the old neighborhood. These things trigger our addictions because they are familiar solutions, and we don’t yet have other habits to replace the old stuff. It takes years to get rid of those unexpected urges (or to learn to laugh at our addict thinking and ignore them). While we’re learning, stress is not our friend. And who/what are the best things to trigger stress in a newly-recovering person? Old “people, places and things.”

Treatment, halfway houses and meetings are places where we are accepted unconditionally, without regard to what we have done in the past, but with support for what we are trying to accomplish in the present. There we are surrounded by people who have slogged many long miles in our shoes. We are safe there, free of the old triggers, while we slowly learn the new habits of sobriety that will replace the deeply-ingrained habits of addiction. Families can help by understanding this, and by the willingness to delay their wants a little bit longer. That will help improve the chances that their addict will return to them for for the long run, not just until the next run.

Happy Mother’s Day From Sunrise!

We have an exciting week coming up at Sunrise Detox.  On Tuesday and Wednesday we have the Open House at our Ft. Lauderdale facility.  It’s located in northeast Ft. Lauderdale, near Federal Highway, convenient to Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and about 30 minutes from the Miami airport.  This new location will allow us to serve facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties more efficiently, and the additional beds in our system will substantially increase the number of folks we’re able to help.

During the same period, we’re having a site visit from the Joint Commission (formerly JCAHO) at Lake Worth.  The Commission is the accrediting body for medical facilities, and we  expect re-accreditation this year with no problems.  Nonetheless, site visits are a busy time for staff, especially given the simultaneous Open House. Everyone will be relieved when the excitement is over and we can get back into our routine of helping our clients without distractions.

And, of course, tomorrow is Mother’s Day. If you're a Mom, congratulations, and we hope you have a wonderful day! 

Whether our moms were our staunchest support, or maybe not so much, they’re the reason we’re here.  If we’re in recovery — or trying to get there — we must be OK with that.  Let's be thankful for her, regardless of what our relationships were like.  She did the best she could, the same as we are — one day at a time.

In Recovery, How Do I Get People To Treat Me Normally?

How do we keep our family and friends from treating us like patients, or walking on eggshells around us, especially around times of celebrations?

First of all, we need to understand that they are doing it because they love us, and are trying to protect us.  It does seem as though they’re attempting to control us in subtle ways, and because we’re feeling something like normal for the first time in years, we want to be treated that way.

However, we need to remember that, to a great degree, we are responsible for those eggshells.  It is probably going to be a while before we can expect to be treated like a normal person.  We need to earn trust and respect by being trustworthy and respectable; we are not entitled to them just because we’ve been sober for a few weeks, or even months.  As the AA saying goes, “Don't expect a medal just because you're finally doing what you should have been doing.”

On their part, our families need to understand that hearing eggshells cracking all the time is irritating, and that the best thing they can do for us in early recovery is to try to treat us as normally as possible — apart from putting temptation in front of us.

That may be hard for them, though.  Remember that for however long we were using, they got used to treating us in certain ways.  Nowadays, our total reality has been turned inside-out, but theirs hasn’t changed much at all.  Change takes time, understanding and trust. Because they do love us and want us to succeed in our recovery, they naturally feel awkward around us because they don’t know what to do.  While that can be really annoying, it’s generally not all that hard to deal with.

We need to sit down with them, discuss our recovery, and honestly let them know how we feel.  If we’re not able to do that yet, we can write them a respectful letter.  If we're seeing a counselor, we can try to arrange a family session.  We need to tell them that while we appreciate their concern, we’d like them to try to relax and be themselves.  They need to know that we’re not going to head for the street or a bar just because someone mentions drinking, or refers to things that might remind us of the past.

We need to let them know that we don’t want to “forget the past, nor wish to shut the door on it,” and that we’ll be bringing it up ourselves from time to time.  They need to know that we don’t expect them to change their lives to accommodate us.

One of the things we can do is ask them to read this article.  Regarding the celebration issue, we can refer them to this article about parties that I publish every year around the Winter Holidays.  Finally, in the case of those who were most affected by our using, we can suggest that they consider a few Al-Anon or NarAnon meetings to learn a little more about living with people in recovery.

Most of all, we need to remember that these people love us.  They want to trust us.  They want us back in their lives.  They want what’s best for us.  They always have.  If we remember these things, and that they’re just doing the best they can — the same as us — it makes getting along a lot easier.

Romancing the Relapse: Relationships in early recovery

U. S. Library of Congress

One of the first things we hear in recovery, both in treatment and around the rooms of the support groups, is “No new relationships in the first year.”  If it’s not one of the first things we hear, it’s certainly one of the first things that get our attention.

That’s hardly surprising.  Emotions that have been suppressed by alcohol and other drugs are suddenly bubbling to the surface with none of the edges knocked off.   Add to that the fact that we’re feeling at loose ends, with all that time on our hands that we formerly spent using, and the fact that we really don’t want to face life directly yet, and we’re ripe for distraction.  Since rehab romances are one of the most common issues in early recovery, it crosses our minds, “Why not, as long as the other person is in recovery too?  We’ll have so much in common!”

Human beings are hard-wired for romance.  We are wired to be attracted to “our kind of people,” and to become obsessed with them to the virtual exclusion of everything else until we have consummated the relationship and are well along the way to creating a family unit — at least theoretically.  That’s nature’s way of making sure we continue to produce little people.    One of the most basic things we have in common with other people in early recovery is addict behavior.  We speak the same language.  If we find them sexually attractive as well, of course we want a relationship.

Because such relationships are so all-consuming, in early recovery they create the ultimate distraction at a time when all of our attention needs to be focused on learning how to exist and progress without our drug(s) of choice.  Anyone who has been “in love,” (lust) knows how the other person consumes our thoughts and — with opportunity — our time.

The bare facts of the matter are (a.) we need to give our full attention to our program until we have mastered the skills of sober living; (b.) we need to learn to have healthy relationships with ourselves before inflicting them on someone new; and (c.) any relationships we enter so soon after getting clean and sober will almost certainly fail as we grow in different directions from the significant other.  Last, but hardly least, relationships in early recovery are, in the opinion of many, the number-one cause of relapse.  That’s what you’re likely to have most in common.

Make sense now?