When Crisis in Early Recovery Strikes…
Life happens. Deaths in the family, loss of job, car accidents that have nothing to do with drinking and driving, even the basement flooding – all are dangers of human existence. When a family is in early recovery, however, they can seem especially threatening. Will the stress cause a relapse? Can the family put aside conflicts to band together and survive?
Here are some ideas on how to handle a crisis so that everyone pulls through – together.
1: Save the old arguments for later.
Right after you find out that a grandparent died is not the time to bring back old conflicts about drinking and drug use. Some people find that when they are sad, they express it by getting angry. Unfortunately, this can lead to rehashing the past – shame and blame about drug use – at just the wrong time.
Now is the time to deal with the crisis at hand. Make the arrangements, do what needs to be done, and save the conflict for later.
2: Make the space safe.
Many families have rituals around major events, such as a death in the family, that include alcohol. For those trying to abstain from alcohol these events can be very difficult. Mixing grief with abundant alcohol is a cocktail for relapse.
Families can try to talk as openly as possible about how to make the space safe for everyone. Does every event have to include alcohol? Can the person in recovery be excused from some events in order to go to a meeting, avoid a triggering environment, or just get some downtime? At the same time, can the rest of the family have some space to deal with the crisis at hand? If a family member has been driving them to meetings, could the person in recovery arrange safe rides with other group members in order to give the family time to do what they need to do?
There is a great temptation to try to be perfect, please everyone, and make up for lost time in early recovery. This isn’t just on the part of the person who has had trouble with substance: the entire family is in recovery. No one wants to rock the boat, but life still throws tidal waves at us. Now is a good time to cut each other, and ourselves, a little slack. There is no family event or obligation that is worth risking a relapse into dangerous behavior.
3: Resist the urge to over-monitor.
There is a common misconception that a person in early recovery needs to be locked in a cage. The delusion goes something like this: If the person can not go out alone, is watched every minute, and is required to report (by text or phone) every time they go out, they will not be able to drink or use. This almost never works for long, and when it does, it breeds resentment that prevents self-driven recovery.
The urge to over-monitor usually kicks in to family and friends after a relapse. A crisis can also kick this urge into overdrive. When a person in early recovery loses their job, family members may think: “Oh no! They will surely drink/use over this!” and demand more “accountability,” or even withhold privileges that lead to freedom, such as using the car.
This kind of behavior turns a crisis into a punishment for the person in recovery. The death of a family member, loss of a job, or other crisis may be triggering, but that’s a good reason to support, not punish, the person in recovery.
It can also be very empowering for a person in recovery to provide support to other family members in time of crisis. I remember shortly after one of my worst crises with alcohol, my mother had to have a knee replacement. Supporting her through that process got my mind off myself, and gave me a feeling of meaning and purpose that made me not want to drink. Family members asking for and receiving each others’ help is much more likely to lead to recovery all around than constant checking in and hyper vigilant monitoring.
4: Cut other family members some slack.
Family members and friends of a person newly in recovery are freaking out because they’re afraid that the person will relapse as a result of a crisis. The person in early recovery is freaking out a) because of the crisis b) because their family is freaking out. To stop the drama, or at least minimize it, cut each other some slack. If it makes your dad feel better to text him every day (or a few times a day), go ahead and do it for awhile. It’s not forever. If it helps the person in recovery to go upstairs to their room and play video games for awhile after school, don’t push them to do their homework right away. Give each other some space, and honor each others’ emotional needs. Remember: if you don’t know what would make someone’s life a little easier right now, just ask!
5: Get professional help.
Now is a good time for the whole family to rely on the services of an experienced professional for help. A counselor, pastor, or other religious leader can provide leadership through struggle. A person whose focus is not on substance but on helping families handle crisis of all kinds can be very helpful.
Life happens. The kind of crisis that life brings: a bad health diagnosis, the death of a family member, friend or beloved pet, a move or a job change or loss: they’re bad for anyone, but especially scary when a family is in early recovery. By sticking together, instead of tearing each other apart, families can turn these life events into a way to grow closer together.