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New You, Same Old Family and Friends

By Clint Fletcher

I’ll never forget the first time I realized my life had changed due to recovery. I was about three months sober, and I was at dinner with some friends I grew up with. My best friend of 19 years ordered drinks for the table and pushed a glass of wine in front of me. I shot him a look of bewilderment. He knew I was sober, so what was he thinking giving that to me? He looked back with a smile and said, “It’s just wine. That doesn’t count, right?” He meant it. He really didn’t understand.

If you’re newly sober, a situation like this may be all too familiar. What in the heck do you do when you start to change for the better and everyone else in your life (aside from recovery friends) remains the same? How do you connect with them when they haven’t been through the same transformation? Thankfully, there are some practical tips you can employ to deal with these situations when they arise.

Take Care of Yourself First

Remember those instructions flight attendants give on what to do with oxygen masks on planes? Put on your own mask first before helping loved ones put their masks on or you might pass out. Recovery is a lot like this. You may have to do certain things to look after yourself that friends and family may not understand, like going to meetings, talking with your sponsor, going to therapy, and attending alumni groups from treatment. These things may have to happen at inconvenient times for your loved ones. Try to kindly explain that you have to stay connected to recovery.

Taking care of you first may also mean making difficult decisions with relationships. If you’re in recovery from addiction issues, chances are at least some of the people you’ve been spending time with also have similar issues. It’ll be up to you to determine on a case-by-case basis what kind of boundaries you need to set up to look after yourself. This could range from cutting back on certain friendships to limiting time spent with specific family members to ending relationships altogether.

Before you resort to more drastic options, though, consider trying some positive ways you can attempt to connect with loved ones and bring them into your recovery experience.

CounselingFamily group therapy.

Family therapy has seen some pretty positive results in recent years, and counselors that are trained in family therapy can be found in just about every metropolitan area. If your family is up for it, it’s worth checking out.

Invite them to hear you speak. 

Whether it’s AA, NA, or another type of recovery meeting, all of these organizations have speaker meetings, and chances are you will be speaking on occasion. This is a great way for your family to hear your story in a supportive environment.

Suggest Al-Anon Meetings.

Al-Anon meetings were created to support friends and family of people with addiction issues. For those in your life that don’t have addiction issues themselves, this is an excellent resource. Offer to go with them.

Creating Boundaries

One of the biggest aspects of taking care of yourself is setting up boundaries in early recovery so that you don’t feel overwhelmed or triggered by actions or comments from loved ones. In turn, you may trigger them as well (more on all this and emotional boundaries below).

Try these helpful boundary-setting tips:

  • Inform family and friends of what you need for yourself, and don’t accept criticism if it’s not helpful to your recovery.
  • Set up times to go to meetings each week, and don’t let anyone deter you or talk you out of it.
  • If you feel triggered in an exchange with family or friends, give yourself permission to end the exchange or physically leave the location.
  • Establish physical boundaries by informing individuals when they violate your personal space.
  • Present work boundaries by excusing yourself from events that include alcohol if you have addiction issues.

What If They Don’t Understand?

I remember first telling my mother I was thinking of going to treatment for emotional trauma. Many addiction issues stem from past traumas in childhood, and my addiction was no exception. My sisters and I grew up with many dysfunctional family dynamics that included emotional abuse, distance, and manipulation. My mother had no earthly idea what I was talking about. In fact, she felt triggered and insulted at the very notion of her son going to treatment. “Trauma? Trauma from what? I don’t understand.” Scenarios like this can be very common in recovery.

You may have made all the suggestions in the world to loved ones, and some may still not get what you’re going through. Heck, some may never get it, and that’s okay. It’s important to realize you have little control over how others feel. For those friends and family members that have similar addiction issues to those you once did, some of them may become defensive or distant when you try to talk to them about your journey. For them, it may be like holding up a mirror and revealing their own issues, something they may not be ready to see. Others may feel threatened that you’re getting better while they’re still stuck or aren’t ready to get help. As frustrating as this can be, you might discover there are some loved ones you can confide in, and some you cannot. This process will help you learn who is safe to you and who isn’t. Creating emotional boundaries is essential for you to continue on your path to healing.

Early recovery is a time to lean on the people you know are safe for help. Your sponsor, your therapist, and other friends in recovery can help you navigate this process of your new and healthier life. Even though you may feel isolated at times, you are never alone. Stay true to yourself, stay connected, and help loved ones try to understand in the kindest way possible. Life is about to get a whole lot better in a thousand different ways, and hopefully, some loved ones can come along for the ride.