What should I be doing?

“My loved one’s in rehab, so now I can relax… right?”

If you do not relate to this title either because your loved one isn’t in treatment or for whatever other reason, then I hope you’ll keep reading anyway. My goal here is to provide you with information about what to do if you find yourself with some breathing room during the chaos and insecurity. If this title pertains to you right now, good for you. I’m excited for you in the possibility of wellness for you and your family. If you relate to this title from past experience, good; you may be able to interpret this post with more wisdom.

When our loved one enters treatment, hospitalization, or some sort of structured environment outside of us, families usually breathe sighs of relief, briefly. From my experience, families tend to either relinquish their loved one to the structure (jail, hospitalization, program treatment) entirely or they find new ways to engage their loved one. Families sometimes go on vacation, or even turn off their phone to break from stress. And sometimes families engage by contacting their family member’s treatment therapist, waiting by the phone for a phone call, and/or planning out every chance for visitation. Let me tell you, neither reaction at this time is necessarily bad or good. Try to notice how you and your family react to your addicted loved one’s new placement, even if your family members react in different ways. My advice is to allow yourself to acknowledge the feelings that are motivating your reactions. 

Are you having feelings of fear that are leading you to engage or disengage from your addicted family member? Are you having feelings of discomfort that lead you to control and plan? Do you find yourself trying to keep your family member on track with reminders, problem solving, or probing? Or, perhaps, are you nervous that if you don’t provide enough love, support, and encouragement, they will relapse when they leave the structured environment? On the other hand, maybe you find yourself angry, disappointed, tired, and therefore are motivated to disengage and let your loved one learn through, “tough love.”

If any these scenarios above speak to you, I want you to acknowledge the commonality of the following feelings, “fear, insecurity, guilt, worry, restlessness, and/or anger.” These feelings are quite common for those among us who have traveled through our loved one’s addiction. It is these feelings that motivate our reactions and therefore dictate our experiences. These experiences determine our own mental health. Simply, if you find yourself angry, afraid, restless or all three, you are fortunate enough to have a little bit of time away from the chaos so that you can heal from the negative effects of these feelings. These feelings are not bad, but if we experience them for long periods of time, they are detrimental to our mental well-being. Furthermore, the longer we go without healing, the less able we are to choose good behaviors that can help us and our families.

There are more productive ways to interact with our loved one when they first enter treatment or another structured environment. In my experience, if I tell families these productive ways to interact with their loved one without attending to these underlying feelings, the family still struggles to know what to do. I have found that when families take time to acknowledge and heal from their negative feelings, productive interactions come naturally. Put simply, it is difficult to provide support to a person that we are angry with just like it is difficult to trust a someone to make good decisions when we are hurt from their past behaviors. Instead, if we heal from the effects of anger and distrust, we can naturally allow ourselves to forgive and trust.

Productive responses to a family member going into a structured environment come as a result of dealing with our own feelings first, allowing ourselves to feel these things, reaching out to someone wiser than us for advice, and then taking care of ourselves. I can go into detail of these steps in a future blog, if anyone would find that helpful. In the meantime, try to take a breath, and notice your feelings. Whatever you notice is perfectly okay, I promise, even if you notice difficult emotions, like anger, resentment, guilt, shame. I’m sorry to say, these feelings may not just go away suddenly. So, give yourself permission to have them, and do something that refuels your batteries.

Sometimes people find it helpful to be around those that they love and love them back (this includes your pets), be in nature, take care of basic needs, speak with a therapist, find a good al-anon meeting. If you notice feeling guilty or afraid (especially when you take focus away from your loved one) note these feelings and give yourself permission to focus on healing so that you can be more productive with your addicted family member when the time comes.

My experience from the past and hope in the future, is that you will notice yourself having more productive responses to your addicted loved one when you begin healing from these difficult emotions in yourself.

Check back here for the next blog to helping family members learn ways to take care of themselves in a way that is most helpful for the rest of their family members.