8 Ways To Rebuild Family Relationships In Early Sobriety
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Although achieving the first steps on the path of recovery from addiction is a personally powerful experience, coming face to face with the damage to family left behind and the amends that need to be made can be overwhelming. When my head cleared up in the first months of recovery and I became truly aware of how much I had hurt my family, I did not know if the ruins in my wake could be cleaned up. I did not know if those bridges could ever be repaired.
I soon realized, however, that rebuilding family relationships was not just about cleaning up the mess. No matter how much I wanted to do so, I could not repair those bridges on my own timeline. Rather, I needed to provide them with evidence that I had changed by learning to be a positive and productive member of my family. I needed to develop patience in order to respect the individual forgiveness process of each family member in relation to my recovery. In truth, back in the day, patience wasn’t really my thing. I did not like it, and I still don’t. I want what I want and I want it now, but such an attitude proved to be quite detrimental both in early sobriety and in practically every other facet of life.
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As I continued to make progress in early sobriety, the old demons of past behaviors and the lingering presence of my character defects led to new difficulties. By removing the drugs, my best friend and my number one coping mechanism, I was placed in a very difficult position. The old emotional triggers related to my family became inflamed as my new resentments popped out of the woodwork. By using the emotional tools and approaches discussed in this article, I was able to avoid the pitfall of generating more damage. Even more importantly, I found a way to slowly rebuild the family relationships that I so deeply valued. A key for me was to remember to take it slow.
1) Begin With The First Circle By Forgiving Yourself
Do you know how hard it is to forgive somebody who hasn’t forgiven themselves? If you want your family to see the new you, you need to stop punishing yourself for the past. If you punish yourself in the presence of your family, you will not to be a terribly fun person to be around. Resentment against yourself tends to breed resentment, and this dangerous cycle needs to be avoided in early sobriety. If you let it, your resentment of yourself will become their resentment. So, stop it early.
First and foremost, embrace the process of forgiving yourself. Picture in your mind the image of a stone thrown into a body of still water and see the resulting circle of ripples. The first circle contains you and your higher power, the second circle contains your loved ones and your family, the third circle contains your friends and associates, and onward and onward until the entire universe is included. It is important to remember that you and your higher power are the first circle.
Whatever resentment and anger you are holding onto in the first circle will spread out and affect all of the others. By not dwelling on past mistakes and forgiving yourself, you can avoid this contagious engine of negativity rumbling from within. There is no question that your family and loved ones want you to forgive yourself. It doesn’t mean they want you to forget what happened and pretend like everything has always been hunky dory. They don’t want you to minimize what happened, but it does mean they want you to be a loving and positive member of your family moving forward. The best way to be that kind of family member is to start by forgiving yourself.
2) Saying "I’m Sorry" Repeatedly Is Not A Living Amends
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If you are part of a 12-step program and you are working the steps with a sponsor, it’s important to go in order and not jump ahead. There is a reason why the amends process comes after the higher power connection, the taking of inventory and the addressing of the character defects. By jumping ahead to the process of making your amends, as outlined in Step 8 and Step 9, you are subverting a process that has been proven to work effectively over and over again. It’s always best to trust your sponsor and listen to his or her suggestions.
In terms of the amends process, here is the written description of Steps 8 and 9 as detailed in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:
Step Eight: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step Nine: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Until you get to these steps with a sponsor, it’s best not to make amends. At the same time, when you are rebuilding your family relationships, it’s important to keep in mind, even at the beginning of the process, the concept of living amends. A living amends is distinct from a specific amends. As opposed to paying someone back or taking a particular action, a living amends means a change in behavior and bearing over time. You learn how to live differently, bringing about a genuine change in day-to-day behavior instead of one more verbal apology.
By embracing a living amends, not only do you take on a whole new way of life, but you allow that way of life to be demonstrated through your actions. A living amends is not just about saying you’re sorry to your family once again. How many times have you apologized in the past when you were living in your disease? How many times did such apologies have nothing behind them beyond manipulation? How many times did you fail to back up an apology with an action?
Rather than say sorry once again, perhaps triggering a negative response from your family as they relive the empty shells of your past apologies, change your behaviors. Do the dishes after dinner, and be of service to your family. Go on a walk with your mom, then offer to pick up the dry cleaning. Listen to what each family member has to say, and be positive in your responses. Do your best to avoid falling into old behaviors. By demonstrating to your family that you have changed through new behaviors, the rebuilding will begin to happen.
3) Don’t Measure Their Process By Your Yardstick
When I first got sober, I expected my family to stand up and start clapping when I entered the room. After all, hadn’t I accomplished something amazing? When they failed to react in such a fashion, I became angry. Why the heck weren't they acknowledging the incredible changes that came with my sobriety? When I told my sponsor about my feelings, he said that I was measuring the process of my family’s forgiveness by my own yardstick. In the past, I always thought that my yardstick was the only one that mattered. The zeitgeist of my grandiosity was that you should follow my measurements and do everything according to my calendar.
Once again, I was ignoring their process and not taking into account that forgiveness takes time. The more damage you did to your family, the longer it may take to earn back their trust. Your family might need to see substantial progress before they will be willing to forgive what happened in the past. For several years, my older sister would not let my nephew drive in a car with me. She simply was not willing to take the chance, and I had to respect her wishes.
By giving your family the same freedom that you desire and respecting their process, you will reduce the possibility of creating new resentments and open the door to true healing. I admit that finding such patience within can be hard and can even seem unfair at times, but such are the consequences of all the damage that you did in the past. I know from experience those consequences will pass if you give your family time to trust and believe in you again.
4) Learn How To Listen Without Having To Explain
As a person with the disease of addiction, I became an expert at explaining away whatever I did; a true master of rationalization. Even in early recovery, when negative aspects of my past were brought up, I would do my best to explain them away. After all, there was a context involved, and without understanding that context, how could you ever truly understand me and why I did what I did? In response to this attitude, my sponsor would shake his head and tell me to stop talking. Maybe it was time to learn how to listen first without always having the quick draw of an explanation ready to be fired.
When I did listen, I came to understand that my family had something to say. By being able to express their feelings to me about what happened and what was happening now, my parents were able to connect to their own process in relation to my recovery. They actually did not want another explanation, and any explanation coming out of my mouth, no matter how justified and contextualized and insightful, would have been detrimental to their process.The needed to express their feelings to me aloud without having to hear a response, no matter how justified I thought it was
By learning how to listen without having to explain, I helped them almost as much as I helped myself, and that became a real asset in the process of forgiving myself.
5) Be Tolerant Of And Quiet About Their Character Defects
Perhaps one of the strangest ironies of working the 12 Steps is that once I started to take catalogue of and carefully examine my own character defects, I began to see them all over the place in the actions and behaviors of other people. Since I am related to my family, both from a genetic and an environmental perspective, I grew up with them, and many of my character defects are reflective of their own. Moreover, when it came to their traditional character defects that had nothing to do with me but had always got under my skin in the past, I saw and heard them blaring like a racing fire truck on a city street. I wanted to point them out like an excited little kid.
After all, since I was working on character defects, shouldn’t they be working on their own problems as well? Wouldn’t it be helpful if I used my new sober insight to point out what they were doing so they could begin to change? When I asked my sponsor, he actually began laughing. He asked me whether I wanted to rebuild my family relationships or get thrown out of the house?
Given my obvious answer, he suggested that I learn how to be tolerant of and quiet about the character defects of my family and loved ones. They weren’t in 12-Step programs, and they weren’t asking for such feedback. Even if their character defects got under my skin, it was not my job to point them out and cause unnecessary conflict. Instead, I should keep quiet, practicing the principles of tolerance and compassion. After all the damage I had caused in the past, it was not my role in the family to suddenly become the enlightened and insightful soul that points out the faults of others. If I took on such a role, I would be embracing a deep hypocrisy while grating on and exasperating my family at the same time.
6) Accept the Reality Of What Cannot Be Repaired
I honestly wish everything could be magically fixed in sobriety and every addict could be forgiven and every family healed. Although a beautiful hope, such a sentiment is also a fairy tale.In early sobriety, I needed to accept the reality of what could not be fixed. Some of my past relationships had been broken beyond repair. This happened to me not with my nuclear family, but with some cousins and some old friends. I simply had gone too far, and they did not feel safe around me, regardless of my newfound sobriety. In many cases, the friendships had been broken long before I ventured into the darkest depths of my addiction. I was hoping to rebuild them now that I had found the path of sustainable sobriety, but this was simply not to be.
Yes, it was a hard pill to swallow, but I needed to respect the other person's decision to part ways by giving them space and leaving them alone. While you may want to attempt to reconcile even after they have turned their back on you, it is often best just to let the person be. I found it incredibly hard to accept such a reality, but I also found it to be much better than the alternative of doing more damage. Time and time again, I have seen that it is a mistake to try to force my way back into someone’s life like a bull in a china shop. One day, they might be ready to talk and reconnect. That is still a possibility years later, but in order for that to happen, I needed to respect their initial wishes and let them go.
7) Believe In Your Heart The Process Is As It Should Be
When something doesn’t go my way, when the world doesn’t fall into place in the manner that I think it should, I have a historical tendency to embrace bitterness, become really resentful, and look for an easy way to escape those negative feelings. In early sobriety, everything is not going to go your way, and I promise you that there will arise a number of sudden challenges and unexpected difficulties. This is particularly true when it comes to the project of rebuilding family relationships. In order to avoid falling back into old patterns of behavior, you need to believe in your heart that the process is as it should be.
The key to opening the door to this belief is the Third Step:
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.
When I turn my will and my life over to the care of God, as I understand my higher power to be, then I let go of being in charge and having things go exactly as I want them to go. Although I often dream of the ambitions and desires of my life falling perfectly into place, they rarely do. Nothing is ever perfect, and rarely is anything even close to perfect. However, my spiritual progress allows me to avoid the pitfall of perfection and value the progress being made. Like the Beatles, I just let it be.
When I look back at my efforts to rebuild my family relationships, it actually went so much better than I ever could have expected. After never wanting to see or hear from me again, they embraced me back into their homes and their lives. Considering the damage that had been done during my addiction, this was nothing less than a miracle.
Still, in the stillness of facing each family member and their individual fears and resentments, it’s important to understand that the process differed with each one. Some were definitely quicker than others to forgive, and some will probably never be able to completely let go of the bad feelings caused by all the wreckage I left in my wake. Yet, today, I don’t have to tie my identity to those ruins. By believing in my heart that the process is as it should be, I can celebrate my present reality while remaining hopeful about the future.
8) Know That You Deserve Love And Will Be Loved
It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Every human being in this world deserves love, and everyone should have the faith that one day they will be loved in the manner that they deserve. For an addict in early sobriety, however, the idea that I am deserving of love can seem like an alien concept. In my first months and even years, I often felt forsaken, and it was so very hard to be kind and gentle with myself. By embracing love and forgiveness in the first circle between me and my higher power, everyday life became that much easier to navigate.
But it wasn’t easy. When I was out there in the depths of my disease, I believed that God had forsaken me, and if I had been forsaken, I was going to be the most forsaken bastard on the planet. I used this thought as a justification to celebrate the dark extremity of my life. In recovery, I realized that God never turned his back on me: Rather, I turned my back on God. The loving arms of my higher power were always open if I was just willing to take the first step.
A big part of taking that first step is believing that you deserve love and one day you will be loved. Such a belief goes a long way in the process of rebuilding family relationships in early sobriety. By believing that you deserve love, you actually become that much more lovable.
Wow! I know. It seems like an awful lot to take in. In practice, the tools and approaches outlined above work if you simply apply them. Sometimes they work slowly, sometimes they work quickly, but they almost always deliver results if they are applied. You have every right to rebuild your family relationships. Although it might not always lead to the desired results, at the very least, you can keep your side of the street clean. By following the suggestions offered here, what seems like an extraordinarily difficult process will be a little bit easier, one day at a time. From my heart, the transcendent love that can be found at the very core of our recovery, I truly wish you all the best.