Working on Recovery Means Working on Relationships
That’s why evaluating existing relationships and taking care in forming new ones is such a crucial part of the addiction recovery process.
It’s especially true for the young, who tend to get into relationships quickly and with little thought for their emotional protection, said Amy Spahr, LCSW, executive director of the young adult program at Promises West Los Angeles.
“When I work with clients, I encourage them to take time out to focus on their needs before they get into another relationship and to really look at the relationships they have and figure out, is it going to promote who you want to be? Is it going to promote your recovery?”
It’s a process of self-discovery, she said. “It’s looking at yourself and figuring out who you are and what you want.”
Defining a Healthy Relationship
Central to that, she said, is defining a healthy relationship. Many people, she said, come into addiction treatment without a real idea of what that means.
“They’ll get into a pattern of unhealthy behaviors,” she said. They may have surrounded themselves with other users while pulling away from those with their best interests at heart, for example. In some cases, they may have used sexual relationships to support their addiction. Others may have lived in a dysfunctional relationship for so long that it has become their normal. And a few will be dealing with an addiction to sex as well as an addiction to substances.
The program’s inpatient rehab for young adults provides the space to regroup and evaluate what’s working and what’s not in existing relationships and what they need and want from future ones.
“They learn to ask, what purpose does this relationship serve in my recovery? Is it somebody who is going to be supportive? Is it someone who is really going to be a positive influence in my recovery? And if not, it’s being able to look at leaving those relationships.”
It comes down to setting appropriate boundaries, Spahr said, for their own behavior and for what they can and can’t accept from others.
They may have to separate themselves from old friends who continue to use substances, for example. Boundaries may also be needed with family members. “It could be with a mom who is actively alcoholic whose behavior is impacting the person. Those boundaries may be, I can’t hang out with you or I can’t talk to you or I can’t live with you because it’s too vulnerable.”
And a lot of times, Spahr said, relationships have to be repaired because of the addiction. In these circumstances, individual and group therapy can be invaluable, allowing everyone affected to work toward healing.
Going Slow in Relationships
Those in recovery are also urged to simply give themselves time before striking up intimate relationships, especially with others in early recovery. Waiting at least a year is recommended, Spahr said. “And part of that is, that first year often sees relapses and difficulties. So if you are new to recovery and you’re getting into a relationship with someone else who is new to recovery, what happens if they relapse? How is that going to impact you?”
Spahr told the story of a young woman who had formed a strong bond with another young woman in an earlier treatment experience. When the friend relapsed and stole from her, the woman’s ability to trust others evaporated and that damaged her ability to maintain her own recovery.
It’s important to have peer support, Spahr said, and cultivating connections outside the recovery community is important, but socializing has to be approached carefully since for the young it so often involves alcohol and drug use.
“They want to be able to be in normal situations and do what their friends are doing. But part of what they need to see is no, I have an addiction. I can’t put myself in that situation.” Too often, she said, she sees clients who have overcome their substance use come back into treatment after a relapse because they convinced themselves that they could handle social drinking.
It’s not easy pulling back and trading immediate gratification for the long-term payoff of a healthier, happier life, especially since impulsivity is part of the youthful makeup and research indicates it plays a role in addiction. But Spahr urges those she helps to “focus on one day at a time and recognize what they need to do today to support their recovery. And the more days that they have, day after day, the stronger they get.“ Eventually, they will be able to expose themselves to different environments, she said, “but in the beginning, it’s new, so they just need time in order to get strength. And each day brings a little bit more.”
The Key Relationship
Perhaps the most important relationship work done in treatment, however, is the person’s relationship to him or herself, Spahr said. Often those who have become addicted to substances or a behavior struggle with a negative self-image and feelings of shame. Those feelings, in fact, can sometimes be the source of the addiction in the first place — drugs or alcohol become a way to numb painful emotions.
The therapies used in treatment, including techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy and shame resilience, teach them how to challenge their distorted thinking and value themselves, leading them to feel worthy of meaningful, empathetic and compassionate relationships.
“It’s that discovery for them to be able to be free of addiction and free of those negative thoughts and be able to experience joy again and have fun,” Spahr said. “It is the birthing of a new relationship — a new person.”