How does a recovering addict or alcoholic go about building healthy relationships in early recovery?
When we first get clean and sober, our relationships are generally anything but healthy. The constant pursuit of our drug of choice, compounded by the excuses and lies that we need to keep our addiction going, have distorted many of our relationships and created all sorts of issues within our lives.
So how exactly can we go about repairing all of this damage? How do we turn our lives around and make things right again in the world?
The first thing to note is that the recovering alcoholic or addict has to establish a baseline of sobriety before they can really attempt to “fix” their relationships.
If you look at the 12 steps of AA or NA, you will note that the “relationship repair step,” step 9, is not exactly the first step in the program. That is by design, of course. In other words, if you sobered up last Tuesday and you are jumping into recovery and trying to save yourself, then you do not start out with trying to run off and fix all of your relationships overnight.
It doesn't work that way.
Why not? Why is step 9, the step where we attempt to make amends with the people that we have harmed, not the first or second step in the 12 step program?
Probably because it is just too early in the process for this to be able to work. How many times has the typical addict or alcoholic cried wolf in terms of their addiction? How many times have the vowed or promised to change, and then never followed through with those changes and continued to abuse their drug of choice?
In other words, we cannot expect a recovering alcoholic who has 2 weeks sober to just rush out and fix everything overnight. That is not realistic and trying to rush into that process is likely just going to set the person up for failure.
Instead, recovery should build up slowly, in a strong and steady sort of way. Meaning that the struggling alcoholic or drug addict should start with fixing themselves and their immediate problem of substance abuse, and focus on that entirely in the beginning. For example, they should begin their journey, if at all possible, by attending inpatient treatment for 28 days or more. This is the best possible way for them to establish a baseline of safe recovery from which they can then build.
After leaving an inpatient treatment program, the struggling addict or alcoholic is given directions in terms of their aftercare. This is what is suggested for them in order to maintain sobriety as they transition out of an inpatient treatment program back into the real world.
You will note that most of their aftercare suggestions are social based ideas. For example, they are often instructed to attend intensive outpatient therapy, or IOP sessions. These are very often group sessions in which they have a group of their peers there with them to work through problems and process ideas. Another common form of aftercare that is often recommended is that of going to 90 AA meetings in the next 90 days. Again, the focus is on social and peer support in most cases.
We do not recover on a deserted island. Recovery is all about relationships and helping each other to remain clean and sober.
Another way to look at the recovery process is that we are trading in a set of unhealthy habits for a set of healthier habits. And to take that a step further, we are also trading in a set of unhealthy relationships for a set of healthier relationships.
In my own life experience, I had to completely walk away from certain relationships in my transition to early recovery. For example, I had a large group of friends, peers, and acquaintances that I pretty much just drank alcohol and used drugs with. I could not stay friends with this group of people and succeed in early recovery–that simply was not a realistic possibility. The entire basis of my relationship with those individuals was based on the fact that we got drunk and high together. As much as it saddens us to walk away from our friends, sometimes that is the price that we have to pay in order to change our life for the better.
Now when I was facing this decision in my own recovery journey, I did not really want to hear people telling me that “I would make all sorts of new friends in recovery, blah blah blah.” I did not want to hear that at the time, because it was very painful to walk away from my friends who were addicts and alcoholics.
However, just because I did not want to hear it did not make it untrue.
Those people were right–I met a whole bunch of new friends in recovery that were, quite honestly, a whole lot better than the peers that I hung out with in my addiction.
Why were they better?
Mostly because they were positive people in recovery who wanted to see me succeed. They were interested in building me up and helping me in positive ways, rather than trying to help tear me down through self medicating all the time.
And so a big part of building healthy relationships in my early recovery, for me, was the simply fact that I had to trade out all of my drinking buddies for new peers that I met in a recovery program. That simply switch, though difficult to make, was a huge key to my success in early recovery. Had I tried to keep hanging around with my old drug buddies I probably would have given in to temptation at some point and went back to my old life of addiction.
So after the struggling addict or alcoholic establishes themselves in the recovery process, and after they have been on this path of personal growth for a few months, they are now in a position to be able to improve their existing relationships. For example, after 6 months or a year of sobriety, you have a better chance of reconnecting in a positive way with family members or friends that may have given up on you when you were in the worst parts of your addiction.
So here is my suggestion if you are looking to turn your life around rebuild these key relationships: One, go to inpatient rehab and start establishing a foundation for your recovery. Take it slow and do what is suggested of you. Second, start attending AA or NA and begin to replace those toxic relationships with healthier ones from more positive people in recovery programs. And finally, once you have some sober time under your belt, go back to your friends and family and make amends for the harm that you caused them during your addiction.
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