It Takes a Family: A Cooperative Approach to Lasting Sobriety
By Debra Jay
Structured Family Recovery takes family members off the sidelines and puts them in the game. It’s often said that recovery isn’t a spectator sport. We can no longer afford to squander one of the best resources in the lives of most addicts— family. In early recovery, a time when a united front is crucial, families can make the difference between success and failure.
As families, our efforts to help the addict can be hindered by misconceptions. What we believe about addiction and recovery are often myths. The newly recovering person is not only misled by faulty ideas but further hampered by a propensity for dismissing the advice of treatment providers. Once a family engages in Structured Family Recovery, this is of little matter, because the process is designed to set the entire family on the right course.
Building on what we know about what works for doctors, Structured Family Recovery can bring a similar recovery management program to families using the Eight Essential Elements from the Physician Health Programs as a springboard. Structured Family Recovery is a framework. It’s a simple process that gets results. It’s easy for any size family group to participate in, and team members can begin before an addicted loved one goes to treatment, while he’s in treatment, or after he’s completed treatment. The addicted person isn’t involved from the outset but is invited to join the recovery team at the appropriate time.
Structured Family Recovery gives renewed purpose to a family that’s been fractured by the emotional and financial upheavals caused by addiction. Sharing a common goal—sobriety that lasts—naturally draws families together again. A higher calling unites us. Pulling together, we accomplish more than any one person can. In all areas of achievement, from sports to business to science, those who succeed stand up to congratulate the members of their teams: the mentors, coaches, supporters, cheerleaders, and experts. Similarly, families in recovery need teams built for success.
Structured Family Recovery is a program of action. It is therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. It supports Twelve Step recovery for alcoholics, addicts, and family members. Like Physician Health Programs, it supports ongoing recovery but is designed so that every member of the family contributes to preventing relapse, healing the whole family, and building trust. Through structure and accountability, a new outlook emerges. Everyone participating in a recovery program changes, not only each individual but the very grain of family life. Broken relationships start to mend, and the love we have for one another begins to reveal itself. Structured Family Recovery starts with a decision to dedicate one hour a week to a family meeting. Since meetings happen via conference calls, it doesn’t matter where you live, if you are home or traveling, in your pajamas, or walking in the park. People don’t have to drive to designated meeting spots, find childcare, or figure out how to include family members who live out of town. If the addict is in residential treatment or a sober house, he can still participate. Each meeting is as close as your telephone.
Structured Family Recovery isn’t punitive or judgmental. No one is telling anyone else what they think about them or what they should do. Instead, they talk about themselves and their own strengths, limitations, and needs. By focusing on themselves rather than on everyone else, they regain manageability in their lives. Everyone learns where to find their power and what they are powerless over. With time, everyone can begin to forgive and eventually can trust. There are bumps in the road, to be sure, but together, as a family, they work through them.
The Williams family decided to participate in Structured Family Recovery when their mom was in treatment for the third time. All four children were grown with families of their own, and Mom and Dad were empty nesters. Mom’s relapse with alcohol and oxycodone, an opiate pain medication, went largely unnoticed by the kids who were busy with their own lives. Dad didn’t want to burden the children with news of yet another relapse, so he tried to manage the problem on his own.
Eventually, their mom found it hard to get enough pills to satisfy the demands of her addiction. Law enforcement had begun cracking down on the doctors who were making it easy for her to get prescription painkillers. This is when things changed measurably. She was forced to buy what she could on the streets. Some days, when nothing else was available, she bought heroin. An upper-middle-class housewife and grandmother turned street junkie once the doctor’s office—the socially acceptable supplier of her drug—was shut down.
Soon it was impossible to hide her problem. Dad still didn’t mention anything, but the children were terrified by how incapacitated their mother had become. At a granddaughter’s birthday party, she was barely able to speak and repeatedly nodded out at the dinner table. Finally, her daughter broke the code of silence and demanded something be done, and they implemented a structured family intervention.
Once Mom was admitted into a residential treatment program, her children began to discuss the seriousness of their mother’s addiction and how it was ripping the family apart. They knew if she relapsed again, she would die.
Addiction had taken its toll on everyone. There was too much secret-keeping, infighting, and general chaos. The adult children didn’t get along most of the time, periodically stopped talking to one another, and dreaded celebrating holidays. They were frustrated by their father’s passive approach to their mother’s addiction and blamed him for allowing it to go on. Even the grandchildren were pulled into the family drama. Something had to change.
A family decision to participate in Structured Family Recovery felt like a leap of faith, because nobody fully understood the idea of family recovery or why it was necessary. They only knew that they needed to do something more than they had done in the past, hoping it would help their mother in her struggle to stay sober. Empowered by the success of the intervention, the adult children called their father asking him to get involved, too.
Because family relations were fractured due to many years of coping with their mother’s addiction, they unanimously decided they needed to work with a counselor trained in Structured Family Recovery. Most of the family resided in Chicago, but one brother lived in Indianapolis and a sister was a flight attendant who was often not home. Since weekly meetings with the counselor were on conference calls, everyone could participate. Nobody knew what to expect, but the counselor reassured them, explaining that their mother also felt nervous and questioning of being in treatment and away from home.
The weekly meeting is at the heart of Structured Family Recovery. Everyone reviews their past week, determining what worked well for them and what didn’t. Then members of the team discuss what they want to do in the week ahead. The counselor offers support and guidance to keep everyone moving in a beneficial direction. Everyone creates small, workable goals that produce big change over time. No one worries about being perfect. As a matter of fact, the Williams family chose “Progress not perfection” as their family slogan.
They made a pact to follow the directions and do whatever was required, just as they expected their mother to do in treatment. The counselor began educating them about recovery and how it worked. Everyone found a weekly Al-Anon meeting to attend, began reading recovery literature written for families, and completed simple assignments. Soon they began to see the power of small changes and the effectiveness of working as a group.
Halfway into treatment, they received a call from their mother saying she’d packed her bags and was leaving treatment. The family momentarily panicked and went headlong into a chaotic state. As they described it, “Everyone started freaking out. We fell right back into our old ways of coping, which was helping no one.” But then they realized they weren’t alone anymore. They quickly called their Structured Family Recovery counselor and then their mother’s counselor. The family experienced firsthand how easily they could mobilize their team. Family and professionals, working in tandem, put a plan together. They scripted the best way to talk with their mother to help her make a better decision. A conference call with the family, the treatment counselor, and their mother made it possible for everyone to participate in dignified and respectful problem solving. In less than thirty minutes, their mother agreed to follow all the professional recommendations and stay in treatment. The power of the group was more powerful than the pull of her addiction. The treatment team agreed that none of them individually could have persuaded her to stay without help from the family team.
Before their mother was discharged from the residential treatment program, they invited her to participate in one of their Structured Family Recovery conference calls. They explained what they had been doing for themselves and invited her to join the family team. She readily agreed. Later, a counselor in the treatment center told the family how proud their mom was that the entire family was part of the recovery experience. She shared what happened in group therapy, smiling from ear to ear.
Today, the family has been engaged in weekly Structured Family Recovery meetings for over fifteen months. Mom is sober a year and three months and actively involved in her Twelve Step recovery program. The entire family knows the language of recovery, because they attend weekly Twelve Step meetings for families of alcoholics and addicts. While everything isn’t perfect, the family is back together. They’ve begun having fun again, getting together on weekends for dinner and board games. They’ve even taken some short skiing trips together and are planning a family cruise. Grandchildren are at the grandparents’ for overnighters. Everybody talks to everybody else.
The dad recently said, “I have to be honest. When we started this, I resented it. I thought, it’s one more thing I have to do every week. But now, I see my wife sober, and I’m so proud of her. And I hear what comes out of my kids’ mouths during our meetings, and I’m amazed. I think to myself, did I raise these wonderful children?”
Structured Family Recovery transforms recovery into a journey the family takes together. Ultimately, it gives families back the most important thing of all—each other.
Most books on recovery from addiction focus either on the addict or the family. While most alcoholics and addicts coming out of treatment have a recovery plan, families are often left to figure things out for themselves. In It Takes a Family, Debra Jay takes a fresh approach to the recovery process by making family members and friends part of the recovery team, beginning in the early stages of sobriety.
In straightforward, compassionate language, she outlines a structured model that shows family members both how to take personal responsibility and to build a circle of support to meet the obstacles common to the first year of recovery. Together, family members address the challenges of enabling, denial, and pain while developing their communication skills through practical, easy-to-follow strategies and exercises designed to create transparency and accountability.