Can you recover from an addiction without a strong support system? It’s possible, but your journey is much more challenging. Whenever possible, it helps to have as many folks as you can in your corner — including your family.
However, many addicts don’t come from the healthiest origins. Sometimes, the ones you want to support you the most as you heal can hinder the process instead. Here’s how family dynamics can impact recovery and how to cope.
1. Family Events Can Trigger Maladaptive Behaviors
If you grew up in a family where one or both parents struggled with their own addiction issues, you probably didn’t learn healthy coping skills. You may have never explored techniques like exercise and mindful breathing to calm your nervous system and process traumatic events.
As a result, when events such as death or divorce occur, your first instinct might be to seek solace in drugs and alcohol. If this is how your parents coped with such challenges, you might not know there is another way. Unfortunately, when a less-than-ideal childhood environment meets the physiological effects of alcohol and drugs, the combination can compound itself by making it harder for you to see how maladaptive such behaviors are.
Alcohol, for example, alters the levels of multiple neurotransmitters that influence your thought processes. Even those who don’t struggle with addiction may have noticed that they often feel more anxious the morning after having one too many.
When you drink, you temporarily feel more relaxed because it depresses the levels of inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA. When you start to sober up, these rebound with a vengeance, making you feel edgy. You might pass a field sobriety test, but these neurochemicals can cloud your judgment regardless.
What’s worse is that tragic events like deaths in the family often reunite you with the same people responsible for the trauma that lead you to misuse drugs or alcohol. Combining the stress of the circumstances with an environment filled with others who likely still engage in the same maladaptive behaviors can trigger a relapse.
If you worry that this slip may occur, forewarned is forearmed. Take the following steps to brace yourself for those times when you must go home again:
- Set boundaries: Please remember, you control what you do and do not do or take — not your family members or your circumstances. While it may feel tempting to indulge “just this once” to cope, please recognize that doing so will only make an already volatile situation worse. Rehearse saying no when someone offers you drugs or alcohol. Steel yourself to walk away if they won’t respect your wishes.
- Meet in public when possible: If you have to return to the homestead for a funeral, you might have no choice but to attend a wake held at your family’s home. However, if possible, meet in public. Other people’s presence can sometimes inhibit your relatives’ worst behavior.
- Emphasize safety above all: If someone does overindulge, please try not to judge. Do what you must to keep your family member from getting behind the wheel and protect their safety until they reach sobriety.
- Share your recovery and encourage others to seek help if you feel safe doing so: If you found the perfect therapist, pass their information to your cousin or sibling who is struggling with addiction. Talk about your coping tips and share how your recovery has improved your life.
2. Parents Create Patterns that Prove Tough to Break
If you ask yourself where you learned to utter the words “I need a drink” when you feel stressed, chances are, you heard them from your folks first. The media then einforced these messages, with endless depictions of people having a blast while engaging in alcohol.
Unfortunately, these early behavioral patterns could prove tougher to break than you think. Research performed by Yale psychology scientists indicates that 3 to 5-year-olds engage in “over-imitation” when presented with novel items or circumstances.
Investigators used toys containing other objects like turtles inside, and participants imitated the adult process for removing them. However, the adults performed several unnecessary steps, like turning knobs that did nothing. .
When researchers had these children remove the objects under time pressure, they continued performing the unnecessary actions, even when they “knew” they were irrelevant to the objective. The experiment shows that although you may intellectually recognize certain behaviors as maladaptive, you may nevertheless imitate them if that’s all you saw in childhood.
The solution is mindfulness. When you understand the influences driving your behaviors, you can say to yourself, “I’m doing X because it’s what my parents always did. Is it the best choice?”
3. Siblings Can Provide Valuable Support
Your siblings can become valuable parts of your support system. If your sister and brother are also in recovery, seek them out at family gatherings. Together, you can create a united front against temptation.
However, in other cases, your sibling could side with a toxic parent, imitating many of the same abusive things they do and say. If conversing with them increases your feelings of anxiety and depression to where you feel tempted to use again, going no-contact might be your best choice.
Understand that doing so may mean skipping events like funerals where this family member will be present. If you have other supportive relatives in your corner, you might be able to plan your arrival for before they get there or after their departure. However, please remember that ultimately, you are responsible for putting your mental health first.
Understand How Family Dynamics Impact Recovery
Understanding how family dynamics impact recovery can help you to cope when you must have contact with members who threaten to derail your mental health. Please protect yourself and use the above tips to help you stay on track.