What it means to have an active user (or newly sober person) in your life
by Lisa Curtis, LCSW, CASAC and Kimberly Goodrich, LCSW
You’ve been kind and patient, waiting for the person in your life to wake up, smell the coffee ~ or in this case, the consequences ~ and stop engaging in the destructive behavior that keeps coming between you. The longer you wait however, the more upset you find yourself. “Why aren’t they just stopping?” “Can’t they see what this is doing?” “If they have stopped the destructive crap they were doing, why don’t things seem any better?”
We’ve heard these statements, and more, as we’ve worked with people who are trying to manage life with someone who is (or was) abusing substances. For the sake of ease we’re going to be referring to those destructive behaviors as ‘using.’ Using can mean drinking too much or more than intended or participating in substance use that is outside one’s comfort zone. Perhaps someone is newly sober and you’re wondering when things are going to go back to ‘normal’. Hint: they can’t go back to what they were.
You’ve probably done many google searches, looking for clues as to what’s going on and tried your level best to figure out just the right thing to say, or not say, to make the situation better or to wake them up. Or heck, just make it all go away. Keep reading if this sounds like you as we hope to explain some of the pieces that you may not see on an internet search.
Hard Reality #1: Using works
At the most basic level everyone does something because it works to change the way we feel. Have a headache? Take an Advil. Hungry? Eat an apple. Feel awkward, uncomfortable, angry, scared, sad, anxious? Use substances and that all goes away. Maybe not for very long, but at least those feelings go away for a little while. That apple we ate when we were hungry? It was good but it wasn’t the piece of pumpkin pie that really looked good. Got the idea? Love it, hate it – but using works. The consequences? Meh, those will be pushed aside too with more using. It’s a horrid cycle but on some level, in the beginning, it works.
Once you begin to really understand this basic fact, it becomes easier to live with the other hard realities.
Hard Reality #2: There are real, physical changes that happen in the brain with using that make it hard to stop and to stay sober
Using or engaging in behavior that is rewarding in nature, literally changes the structure of the brain. Drinking, using illicit drugs, gambling and other behaviors alter how the brain functions. Coming in at just about 3 lbs, the operating system of our bodies works on a series of electrical and chemical pathways. The chemicals, called neurotransmitters, send out signals to the brain and relay critical information. Over time, the basal ganglia, a section of the brain that is responsible for what is known as the ‘reward circuit’, gets worn down. Using overactivates this circuit so that eventually the circuit adapts to the overstimulation and stops finding it pleasurable. Think of this a little bit like you’d think about playing a game of fetch with a dog. Done once a day, the dog finds it fun and rewarding but done non-stop, the dog is going to eventually give you the, ‘Not again. Nope, not racing after that dirty tennis ball again’ look.
The brain behaves the same way; used over and over again that reward circuit is either going to need more to feel the effects or it’s simply going to say, ‘no, thank you but nothing is going to make me feel good.’
There’s more. Another change in the brain that occurs with prolonged use of substances impacts one’s executive functioning skills. What is executive functioning? These are higher level processes that enable us to plan, organize, make decisions, handle tasks and, more importantly, have control over our impulses. Impulse control is similar to brakes on a car. Now – think about someone who is using or who is trying to stop using. Without brakes, the car can’t stop even if it wants to. This is why relapse is so common in those new to sobriety. It takes time for those executive functioning skills to come back and/or improve – sometimes, as long as 6 months to a year.
What does this mean in real life? It means that stopping the using doesn’t instantly improve the situation in the brain. To tell you the truth, it makes it worse. The using likely got to a point where the user was at least numb or less concerned with consequences. Stopping has the effect of leaving one feeling flat and without anything that feels particularly good – and it can exacerbate anxiety tremendously. The good news is that these changes in the brain can, in many cases, repair themselves over time. However, depending on the substance or behavior, it could take the brain a long while to level out again, if it ever does. That’s not to say there’s no hope, only that you can’t expect a fast turn-around.
Hard Reality #3: Life With Your Person Will Change
When your life begins to revolve around using, when the people you socialize with and the activities you engage in, have a heavy component part of using – think backyard gatherings for dinner with something on the grill complete with a cooler full of cold beer or hard lemonades – it becomes easier to see that even going to such events can be hard for someone if there is a good amount of alcohol or other substances of choice, present. Not everything will change, but some things will. Your person may need more time to go to programs, support meetings and their therapist. They may need time on their own to decompress and take in this new way of being. They may be making time to spend with other people in recovery who “get it”.
While it may feel time consuming, uncomfortable and even unfair, if you consider how much time you spent worrying about them, arguing over the topic or having it be the stress in the room, you might see these changes as a welcome improvement. Know that struggling yourself after your person has gone into recovery is quite common.
Hard Reality #4: Coping and Social Skills Are Often Not Very Polished
There is a saying about how someone’s coping skills stop developing when they start using. It’s a broad generalization but it has some merits. If someone gets heavily involved in using at the age of 18, chances are good they don’t have a lot of practice with managing life’s tricky rumble strips that come up. The longer anyone has to gather and practice coping skills, the more likely it is they feel confident about using them rather than turning to using. The further away from our peers we get at gathering and shining up the skills, the less confident we are to start the process.
If you think back to Hard Reality #3, you can appreciate that going to the backyard dinner on the grill with friends or family is going to feel really uncomfortable in the beginning. That uncomfortability can lead to anxiety and that anxiety can feel awful when you don’t know what to do with it. There is good news about this Hard Reality; these are just skills and skills can be learned, practiced and, over time, feel like second nature but the learning can take time.
Hard Reality #5: Recovery Means Looking at the Whole System
We often talk about recovery being a family affair and we think that’s a bit misleading; it’s really a whole system project. We all come from larger systems and it is within those dynamics that we’re most likely to find out the clues to current behaviors and choices. The family units we create are shaped, in large part by the family units we came from and those units were formed by another set of dynamics many years decades ago. Some systems make specific changes in direct response to how they were impacted in their formative years, “I will never miss my kid’s birthday because all I can remember is that my birthdays were largely overlooked…” Other systems carry on some traditions because they feel it worked out well for them, “It was comforting to know that Sunday night dinner was always at home, no exceptions.”
One of the most surprising discoveries that can be made about the family system is just how far back and embedded some behaviors are. It is those clues that ultimately allow everyone to make new choices for themselves, seeing the past with a new set of glasses.
In making such connections, we also come to appreciate that stepping back from using becomes another shift the entire system will feel. And that swings us to talking about what’s in it for you; finding your own peace.
Peace Tip #1: Becoming aware of the dynamics of a whole larger system allows us to more easily take a break from the ‘blame game.’
But let’s be honest here – it’s easy to switch into the ‘I can’t believe your parents did that to you!’ and point the finger elsewhere. If you can look back with a greater sense of awareness, it becomes less difficult to accept what was and what is.
You might find it useful to think of this way: If you notice that there are sparks flying out of the electrical plug, setting your living room on fire, you’re not going to be well served by screaming that 75 years ago someone should have done a better job of wiring the house. You’re going to get the heck out of there, calling 911 as you go! If it turned out that your beloved grandfather did the wiring when the house was built, because that’s how it was done back then, you’re not going to go yell at him now. You will pick up the pieces, ensure that the wiring is safe in the next house and move on.
Peace Tip #2: You can only control yourself and your actions/reactions. Much as we try, it is impossible to ultimately control anyone else.
We’re often told that we can or that our actions caused the using of someone else; this couldn’t be further from the truth. We are responsible for ourselves only. And this, for the record, includes our children; we can set expectations, be good role models for them, help them learn skills but in the long run, we aren’t responsible for what they do.
What about this ‘enabling’ thing you’ve heard of? We’re so glad you asked. Enabling and helping are two very different things. Let’s explain the difference.
Helping is generally seen as doing something for/with someone who is unable to do it on their own. Assisting our loved one find a treatment facility after they ask us for such support and have done some of the work on their own, is helping. Giving your loved one a ride to their support group because they cannot drive, is helping.
Enabling, on the other hand, is more about doing something for someone else that they are able to do themselves. For example, a mother feels “bad” for her son who she sees as struggling and gives him money to go buy some beer. Another example might be a spouse who feels worried and uncomfortable with her partner’s anxiety and gives him some of her anti-anxiety medication. Purchasing the alcohol for an underage young person to help them avoid a potentially illegal situation, is enabling as well. Enabling allows the user to stay “sick” and inevitably keeps you feeling responsible for them in some way.
Peace Tip #3: Work on yourself.
Going back to Tip #2, since it is only ourselves that we can exert any control over, working on our reactions, how we approach situations or what attitude we go into something with, is critical. Whether it’s self help books, getting more education through groups or seeking out a therapist, the more you learn about what’s going on for you, the better off everyone else will be. The patterns you’re noticing now took some time to get established so it will likely take some time to change them. Be kind to yourself while you’re doing the work.
Peace Tip #4: Rather than getting angry, frustrated or upset with the person in your life who may still be using, learn how to just keep going, doing what works for you.
Is your person too hung over or out of it to do the thing you were going to do together? Pivot and do it anyway; round up a friend, go alone, or get a whole gang together to go. Like many suggestions, this is easier to say than sometimes do. We can go off to dinner with friends but returning home with an attitude isn’t going to be helpful. Making sure you’re clear on how you want to choose your response will be helpful in navigating the pivot.
Peace Tip #5: Identifying moments of gratitude, continuing to hold out the belief that change is not only possible but it is possible to sustain, are often the little things that hold it all together.
Change really is the only constant in any of our lives. Reminding ourselves that change is not only possible but probable can allow us to keep going, creating for each of us, the lives that we want to live. That might mean, ultimately, that you choose to change the dynamics by leaving the relationship. It could also mean the next place you go will benefit from all you’ve learned from where you’ve been.
Going full circle
While it would be glorious to think that any of us could just stop any behavior, activity or thought that was unhelpful to us, at the blink of an eye, the reality is that it just can’t happen like that. Many factors went into the creation of these dynamics and so it will take time (and patience) to get to a new place. There is good news in that message – change is possible. For you, for the person you care for, for the larger system you both come out of. More than one family has sought out recovery one family member at a time, going back generations. Each person’s change often leads to other changes.
Even if your loved one is still struggling, remember that it does not mean that you have to keep struggling. You can still do your own work.
The newly sober person in your life might just end up being the catalyst for a larger, previously unthought of, shift that many will be impacted by. With the right supports – and by that we mean, what works for them – and supports for you, something great could be just around the corner.
If you or a loved one is ready to start the journey that is substance abuse recovery, I can help. Schedule a consult with me so that we can discuss our course of action.
Want to find out more about Kimberly? She’s here ~ https://www.kgoodrichtherapy.com/