"Structured Family Recovery is about strengths—the ones we have and the ones we need."

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Episode 109 -- April 29, 2021

It Takes a Family: Strength-Oriented Sobriety for Everybody

As people in recovery, we have likely had complicated relationships with our families. Some of us may have benefited from the involvement of our families, others might have wanted them to be more involved, some might have wanted nothing to do with the people they came from. Now in recovery, most of us have a sense of how our family dynamics contributed to our substance use disorders, and even made getting help complicated.

However your family fits into your recovery story, the experts agree that we have the best chance of sustaining our new life when the people we love most are involved in it—in a healthy way. This is why Debra Jay titled her book on successful sobriety It Takes a Family.

We also want our families to see how we've changed. If they can be involved in our recovery, they can hopefully let go of unhealthy patterns and beliefs about us from the past because they see how we¿re changing. We can change and grow together, one day at a time.

In her book It Takes a Family: Creating Lasting Sobriety, Togetherness, and Happiness, Debra Jay offers guidance for those who love a person recovering from addiction to step beyond the initial intervention and reinvent their relationships to prevent relapse and support lifelong sobriety. In this excerpt, Jay emphasizes the deep power of family connection and history. She also makes a case for the importance of whole-family commitment to recovery and introduces Structured Family Recovery, a model for creating a family recovery team in which family members work together to overcome the obstacles and heal the wounds that have kept everybody trapped in unhealthy and destructive patterns and cycles.

If you'd like your family to be more involved in your recovery—in a helpful, constructive way—hand them this book or share this excerpt with them. It could be a good conversation-starter.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

So often when I meet with a family preparing to do an intervention, the first thing they do is show me photos of their beloved addicted son, brother, mother, daughter, father, or sister. They want me to see the real person—the person they cherish—so that I'll know there is more to their loved one than addiction. It's the humanity of the person they want to share—the kind heart, sense of humor, generosity. "He's a good son and a good friend," they might say, and then tell me all the wonderful things about him. And I want to hear these things, because then I know what this family is fighting for. It is the magnificence of the loved one, not the addiction, that inspires everything we do. Standing up to addiction requires the fuel of love.

The alcoholic may seem undeserving in a thousand ways, and the family may be seething with anger, but under it all lies the smoldering power of love. That's what drives families. Love. Not wimpy sentimentalism, but courageous, never-giving-up love. I've worked with families who struggled to think of nice things to say about their alcoholic or addict, but they, too, were there to intervene against the disease because of love. Some might say this is illogical, but in spite of the many difficulties they may have had with the addict, they share a rich and complex history that isn't always easy to capture in words. If we fail to factor in the power of belonging to one another, we'll rarely understand the true depth of family relationships.

Several years ago, I began working with a mother concerned about an adult daughter. The professional who referred her to me warned that she was impossible to work with and exhibited signs of emotional instability, so I was expecting the worst. During our first meeting, however, it became clear to me that she was simply a mother who wasn't going to let anyone tell her she couldn't do anything more to help her daughter. She was dogged and intense, but her resoluteness was understandable, and she made sense.

This woman's only child was a bright, beautiful young woman terribly addicted to alcohol and other drugs. The mother had watched over the years as addiction robbed her daughter of all her accomplishments and left her dependent on any man who would have her. Now, she believed, her daughter was at risk of dying. She was going to do whatever it took to turn things around and make sure her daughter had a chance at life, and she didn't care what anyone else thought. Together we devised a well-thought-out plan, designed not only for her daughter's needs but, possibly more important, built to her strengths. It was by invoking a higher calling that we reached her daughter's heart, creating enough spiritual clarity to give her the capability of saying yes to receiving the help she needed.

When families are not given a meaningful role to play after their loved ones enter treatment and recovery, and don't have a clear direction in the recovery process, they often start falling apart. Teams created for the single purpose of intervention splinter, and the momentum dies. Feeling out of the loop, family members can retreat into relying on old survival skills. Where once they used these skills for dealing with addiction's crises, now they attempt to apply them to addiction's recovery. Using the old ways in this new world of recovery won't work. Just as addicts cannot bring the old ways of an addiction lifestyle into recovery, families cannot keep using their old coping methods if they hope to support recovery for the addict and the family.

Our strengths—the bedrock of who we are—are often buried under the many disturbed emotions that come with our response to addiction. We can't always feel love because anger, recrimination, and hurt seem more urgent and truer at times. But these are simply clouds—family symptoms of the disease of addiction that prevent healing for the addict and the addict's loved ones. It's not unusual for families to hang on to disturbed emotions in the same way alcoholics hang on to drugs. Oftentimes, an alcoholic is in recovery, yet the person's family refuses to move forward. Without a way to embrace their own recovery, family members are still tending to their anger.

Have we been trained to always look for the negative in our families? We can just as easily, and with better results, view each other with understanding and compassion. Just as medicine is changing to be more health-oriented rather than disease-oriented, we need to be more strength-oriented when talking and thinking about our families. This requires a clear-eyed inventory of ourselves that will allow us to make decisions to let go of what isn't congruent with our values.

Structured Family Recovery is about strengths—the ones we have and the ones we need. Over time, the crisis of addiction creates unhealthy patterns in families. Engaging in recovery as a team changes these patterns in much the same way a solid recovery program changes the alcoholic or addict. We can learn to loosen our grip on disturbed emotions just as the addict loosens his or her grip on drugs and the emotional and spiritual damage they've caused.

Utilizing the wisdom of the Twelve Steps, Structured Family Recovery promises a spiritual change that can reveal who we really are as a family. As the haze of fear and mistrust lifts, our true selves are revealed. We see our loved ones for who they truly are again. We witness this powerful spiritual shift that comes with recovery, not just in behaviors, but in the very countenance of addicts and their loved ones—the look in their eyes, the sound of their voices, the glow of their skin. Healing truly changes a family.

About the Author:
Debra Jay is a noted author, speaker, and trainer for addiction professionals. She is the coauthor, with Jeff Jay, of the best-selling Love First: A Family's Guide to Intervention and author of No More Letting Go: The Spirituality of Taking Action Against Alcoholism and Drug Addiction. Debra was a guest lecturer on addiction and related issues at Wayne State University for fourteen years. She has been writing a newspaper advice column on families and addiction since 1996. She has served as a board member for Brighton Hospital, St. John Providence Health System, and Dawn Farm. She is a recipient of the 2012 Letitia M. Close BVM Award in recognition of a significant ministry in helping women with the disease of addiction. Today Debra and Jeff run a national private practice, providing intervention training and consultation services for families.

© 2014, 2021 by Debra Jay
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