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.
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.
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…
For four more tips for rebuilding your family relationships during the early stages of sobriety, check out the rest of the original feature article, 8 Ways To Rebuild Family Relationships In Early Sobriety, over at The Fix.