I am often asked the role family played in my recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. It’s an important question. We know that while families do not cause addiction, they can play an important role in recovery, even in subtle ways.
There is no magic formula to determine when everything will come together in that one moment when someone decides that it is time to take the terrifying step forward into the unknown of sobriety. There were times that my family tried to help me but I was simply not ready to begin my recovery. Jail. Failed marriages. Multiple failed bar exams. Collapse of my legal career. A family more than willing to get me into residential treatment and do whatever else was necessary. I had as much family support as could be asked for. There was also a lot of pain and frustration when they were ready and tried help me but I was not ready. Not an uncommon story.
While each person in my family has played an important role, one moment that stands out in my recovery is a conversation I had with my father in the days after my “rock bottom”.
April 9th 2007. I am broken. I am lost. By walking through the door of Alcoholics Anonymous the day before, and accepting my desire chip, I have taken that first scary step into recovery. That first step forward we all must take to survive, regardless of the mode of recovery chosen. I am still missing something however. I am missing that conversation. The conversation of a shy, depressed, bullied 13-year-old boy and his dad. A clinically depressed child in an era when depression was hidden like a contagious disease, so not to spread to others. Spending countless hours alone in his bedroom wanting to be accepted by the popular kids at school. Wanting his first kiss. A date to the prom. A difficult relationship with his mother. Not understanding that he is loved. Too afraid of being told he is not.
Now, days off of an alcohol- and drug-induced blackout. Two days off of my second trip to a local psychiatric facility. I’ve begun the journey of honesty about where I am in my addictions, eating disorder, and depression. Without my father however, there is no honesty. Only continued hiding from the truth.
My father, veteran of the Pacific campaign in World War II and the Korean War. The middle of three sons like me. A bond with his two brothers that was instilled by his father. He and his older brother Marty, operated a “trim shop” in Pittsburgh putting on convertible tops and reupholstering seats in cars from the end of the Korean War until Marty’s death from cancer in 1999. It was often like a bad marriage but there was that bond of brothers. His younger brother Larry would become a renowned academic and author.
I stand outside my father’s apartment door. Walking distance from my home. Walking distances from my two brothers homes. Over a thousand miles from where we grew up, decades later. This was no accident. It was the bond of family and brotherhood he instilled in his three sons. The bond that was instilled with him and his brothers. Growing up, we would constantly hear him say:
“Mark, Jeff, and Brian, wherever you go in life, never allow yourselves to grow apart. Always love each other. Never be afraid to tell the other you love him. Always call each other. Always be there in difficult times. There is nothing more important than your bond as brothers. As my sons.”
I now stand at his door. I am beaten. I can not do it alone I need my family. I need my father. He is now in his eighties. He does not deserve such a burden. To feel his son’s lifetime of pain. Pain hidden from him over a lifetime so not to feel his disappointment. I stand there… I stand there… I finally knock. “Come on in, Brian! So great to see you!” As usual, he offers me his seat on the couch. He asks me if I need anything to eat. I need to talk. He knows something is wrong. A father knows. He sits down next to me on the couch. I am crying. In an hour, I unload decades of pain. Things I had kept from my him because I loved him. Because I did not want to burden him. Because I did not want to see his disappointment in me. I did not want to see his pain over my failures in life.
He held me. He cried with me. Then he said the one thing that defined everything he had taught his sons growing up.
“Brian, I love you. Move in with me and we will get through this together.”
My father, Norton, of the greatest generation. My father gave me the greatest gift. The gift of a father talking to his 13-year-old son and letting him know he is loved. At forty-six years old, sitting on that couch, I was that 13-year-old boy. My father had allowed me to take another step in recovery. The gift of finally allowing myself to be loved. The gift he had instilled in all of his sons so many years earlier in loving and supporting each other. The gift of family. That day, my father helped redefine my future. That day, my dad saved my life.
Every family situation is different but there are commonalities in how addiction issues can be approached. I reached out to Dr. David Henderson for some advice. In addition to the advice he gives, be sure to take care of you! Self care is vital when dealing with family addiction issues.
- Keep the conversation going – When someone is in denial about their addiction, the last thing they want is to be confronted about it. In order to avoid conflict, many family members and friends will avoid talking about the ways in which the addiction is destroying their loved-one and their relationships. But keeping quiet only makes the problem grow worse. It is important for family members to speak up regularly, continually addressing the problem in a nonjudgmental but firm way. Don’t let your loved one’s abuse of a substance become an abuse of your rights as well.
- Determine the nonnegotiables and enforce them – Let’s face it, you really can’t force someone to change if he or she doesn’t want to. However, you can decide not to take part in their decisions by setting firm boundaries and refusing to accommodated for their addiction in your daily life. This may sound easy, but it is very challenging, especially if you don’t know your own nonnegotiables. Compromise is important in any relationship, but we all have limits. What are yours? Knowing your limits and standing by them will keep you from making emotional decisions in the moment, decisions that might actually be more harmful to your loved-one in the long run, even if they ease the pain in the short term.
- Never give up hope – Recovery is a process. It is a bumpy road often fraught with relapses, but with the right tools and support, successful recovery is possible. You must never give up hope that your loved-one can recovery. Encourage them and encourage yourself with the hope. Avoid judgment. Avoid shaming. Hold on to your belief in redemption and wait expectantly for that change.
Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption (affiliate link). A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.