"It is only by allowing ourselves to trust again, when the time is right, that our relationships have the potential to fully heal."
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Episode 81 -- January 21, 2021New Year, New Chances: Rebuilding Trust in Early Recovery
The lives of those in recovery and their families, are littered with the remains of damaged relationships. Early recovery can be a relationship landmine. The combination of deep wounds (on all sides), rising expectations, and changing sensibilities makes it hard to establish the trust, respect, and honest communication that form the bedrock of all healthy relationships.
This month of new starts can include new chances in relationships—even those that have been harmed by the "collateral damages" of addiction.
In her book, Everything Changes: Help for Families of Newly Recovering Addicts, bestselling author Beverly Conyers underscores the role of trust in these relationships. Unlike love, which is unconditional, trust must be earned and then built through consistency, honesty, and integrity. She offers advice for supporting the loved one in your family with the disease of addiction, as well as ways to care for and support yourself as you navigate the early months of recovery.
It has been edited for brevity.
When addicts begin to recover, trust is one of the first things they long for, but it may be one of the last things they are able to reestablish in their lives. The wounds they have caused are generally too deep and the disappointments too numerous for trust to come easily to the people who love them.
It is common for addicts in early recovery to complain that they've been clean six months, twelve months, two years, and their families still don't trust them. But with growth in recovery, most of them come to recognize that loss of trust is an inevitable consequence of addiction.
One woman recalled telling her children that she was about to receive her first-year sobriety coin in AA, only to hear, "Congratulations. Let us know when you get your coin next year." They told her the same thing when she got her second-year coin. It wasn't until a year later that her children were finally willing to attend the meeting with her. Her son and daughter presented their mother her three-year coin. "It took that long for them to believe that I was finally serious about recovery," she said. "It took that long to regain their trust." Another woman said, "My dad used to always watch me. He was always suspicious. It made me mad, but I couldn't really blame him."
Hope, who raised her grandchildren during her daughter's long addiction, said that trust returns slowly during recovery, but questions always remain. "My daughter has been clean eight years. She's become an incredible woman," she said. "But I still ask myself sometimes, Is she going to use again? Is she going to steal again? Is there ever a point when you stop worrying about that? Yes. But I don't think there'll ever be a time when a thought from the past might not come back."
It's what we do with those thoughts, she believes, that shows where we are in our own recovery. "When your addict is using, you would never leave anything of value around," she explained. "You know what's going to happen and you'd be foolish to do so. Now I don't put my pocketbook away when my daughter's in the house. But the thought's there. It comes into my brain. I might want to remove my pocketbook because of the past, but that's where my recovery comes in. She's not that person anymore, and neither am I. It's a deliberate decision on my part to let the past go and give each day the dignity of the present."
Ray, a recovering addict, understands firsthand the long process of rebuilding trust. "My father came to the point where he wouldn't let me in the house," he said. "One time, I went to his place of employment and asked to borrow three dollars. He said he wouldn't give me money to buy that shit and threw me out. Three years after I was clean, I asked him to cosign for a motorcycle. He loaned me fifteen thousand dollars. He gave me land to build a house. My parents chose to make me their medical proxy. That's the kind of faith they have, the kind of trust. Because I'm responsible, I'm a man of my word today."
He paused and added, "Eight short years ago, I was bumming quarters at Dunkin' Donuts. It's incredible to me—eight short years."
The lesson that Ray and other recovering addicts have come to accept is that trust has to be earned. We, as family members, have the right to determine how quickly and to what extent we are willing to extend our trust. After all, trust makes us vulnerable to hurt and disappointment. It makes sense to keep our guard up, at least for a while.
But it also makes sense to remember that it is only by allowing ourselves to trust again, when the time is right, that our relationships have the potential to fully heal.
The Journey of a Lifetime
For many of us whose loved one is still in the earliest stages of recovery, the potential for a healed, healthy relationship remains just that—a potential. Our loved one may still be too fragile to begin to repair his relationships. His need for space may still be greater than his need for family connections. And we may as yet be unwilling or unable to extend our trust and forgiveness.
That is okay. One of the cardinal, inalterable rules of recovery is that it can't be rushed. It takes as long as it takes. Still, it is worth remembering that every day is a new day, and that the future can be infinitely brighter than the past.
For Ray, recovery has brought rewards beyond anything he could have imagined during his twenty-five years of addiction. "My war cry for many, many years was, 'Stay out of my business. I'm not hurting anybody but myself,'" he said. "But hindsight is twenty-twenty. Looking back on anybody who cared anything about me, I can see I caused a great deal of pain. I was truly incapable of knowing what true love, what unconditional love was. I couldn't comprehend what my family felt for me. Today I do."
Hope, who became alienated from her daughter during the years of addiction, said, "Today I have a marvelous relationship with my daughter. We share a lot. She has become an inspiration because of the things she's overcome—without my help. She had to do urine tests for six years to keep her job. It was an inconvenience, but she said, 'This is the wreckage of my past, and I'm going to do what I have to do to set things right.' She's become this woman of grace and dignity."
Sandra, whose husband's cocaine addiction almost cost them the family home and business, said, "We spent a lot of our marriage fighting. We don't do that anymore. He's learned to live with the fact that I don't share some of his interests, and when he gets in one of his difficult moods, I can ignore it. I don't have to be right anymore."
Does there ever come a time when our relationship with our recovering loved one becomes perfect? Of course not. All relationships exist in an ebb and flow of good times and bad, of certainty and doubt, of closeness and pulling away. Incidents from the past may come up for years to come, creating tension and discomfort. Long-buried resentments may rear their head in unexpected ways. Fears may creep in from time to time, threatening our hard-earned peace of mind.
Still, we can draw comfort from understanding that recovery is a journey of a lifetime. Although its challenges are tremendous, its rewards are truly life-altering. As we begin this journey with our recovering loved one—moving toward greater understanding, compassion, and personal growth—we are fortunate indeed to be guided by those who have walked this path before us, and to be sustained by the resilient, enduring bond of family.
Tips for Healing Family Relationships
Supporting the Addict
- Don't set your loved one up to disappoint you by harboring unrealistic expectations. Addiction has done emotional damage, and it may take a long time before she is able to give your relationship the attention it deserves.
- Listen with love. Let go of your preconceived ideas and your sense of responsibility to fix things. Listen, instead, with an attitude of compassion, acceptance, and respect.
- Promote hope. Hope is contagious. When you bring an attitude of hope to your relationships, you give your loved one a precious gift that will help sustain him through the long struggle to make things better.
- Let go of feeling responsible for your loved one's recovery. Treating people with respect means that you don't assume they need help managing their lives. Treating yourself with respect means that you focus on your own well-being.
- Turn the page on the past. This will not come easily. Pain and repeated disappointments have changed the way you see your addicted loved one. Trust has been broken. Still, a new chapter in your life is unfolding. This does not mean that the past can be forgotten—only that it can be put in its proper place.
- Love yourself. Your loved one's addiction has hurt and challenged you beyond what many people could ever imagine. Yet you have survived, and even grown. Celebrate your enduring strength, and cherish your lifelong journey of personal growth.
About the Author:
Beverly Conyers—one of the most respected voices in wellness and recovery—has guided hundreds of thousands of readers through the process of recognizing family roles in addiction, healing shame, building healthy relationships, releasing trauma, focusing on emotional sobriety, as well as acknowledging self-sabotaging behaviors, addictive tendencies, and substance use patterns. With her newest work, Conyers shows us how the practice of mindfulness can be a game-changing part of recovering from any- and everything. She is the author of Find Your Light: Practicing Mindfulness to Recover from Anything (Nov. 2019), Follow Your Light: A Guided Journal to Recover from Anything (Aug. 2020) as well as Addict in the Family: Stories of Loss, Hope, and Recovery (2003), Everything Changes: Help for Families of Newly Recovering Addicts (2009), and The Recovering Heart: Emotional Sobriety for Women (2013).
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