Boundaries and Relationship Re-Entrance
I grew up in a house where drug use and alcohol indulgence was commonplace. At the time I didn’t recognize it as addiction, and yet, somehow I still understood it wasn’t right. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized that not only did my parents and my brothers use and abuse substances and alcohol, but particularly – that my oldest brother was an addict. I can’t say I know the moment or event that flipped that switch for me, but looking back on it now I remember the lying, the stealing, the police involvement, the night he was shot (over a bad drug deal), the times he broke into our house and robbed us, etc. I looked up to this brother. We were close. We went everywhere together – and I was exposed to everything he was doing. It was not the healthiest place for this community-involved, scholastic, socially popular, well-rounded young girl, and certainly not the place my peers and superiors would ever think they’d find me. As I reached my years as a young adult and started my own family, I made the hard decision to form firm boundaries with that relationship with my brother. I cut off all ties with him. He was not welcome in my life until he was willing to do what it takes to get his life in order. I’ve been chastised by some for this decision. “He’s your family… how can you do that to family?” “I could never do that to my sibling.” The truth was, I HAD to do that for my own protection and for the protection of my family. I continued to love my brother, but I had to love myself and my family FIRST, and that meant removing toxic relationships, even if those relationships were my own family. Fast forward to present day. I’m now a forty year old woman, with a family of five, with an established career, and positive reputation in our local communities. I moved two states away from our hometown. Through my mother, I’ve been able to keep tabs on my brother and have known when he has been in or out of jail. Whenever I got curious, I would search his latest mugshot to see what he looks like as the years passed by. My love for my brother never waned, nor did my need to enforce the boundaries I created earlier. Out of the blue, on December 13th, I received a private Facebook message that I wasn’t expecting: “Long time no talk to. I’ve missed you more than words can express. I didn’t want to talk to you until I’d gotten my sh*t together. Happy to say that after about 30 years of being high, I kicked it all.” That was how the message started. It went on to express his desire to reestablish the relationship we once had, and his exhaustion from living the life he has for so long. Needless to say I was immediately overcome with emotions: I was excited. This was exhilarating news. News I’ve wanted and prayed for, for years. I was scared. Was I ready to re-enter this relationship? Was he ready? Was this recovery for real this time? I was sad. Thirty years of his life were gone to a disease that robbed him of his potential. I was confused. How do I take this? Where do I go from here? What do I do with this information? At the time of my brother’s message he had been clean (according to his account) for two months. That’s quite an accomplishment indeed, but when compared to thirty years of hard use, two months is child’s play. I sat down with Vertava Health’ Chief Clinical Officer Toril Newman (28 years of sobriety) to get her perspective on how to proceed. She confirmed for me that my heart was already leading me in the right direction. I wanted to message him back and let him know how excited I was to hear from him and how proud I am of his new recovery and how I would be a silent cheerleader in the distance for him, but re-establishing any relationship would have to come only with greater recovery time and healing for both of us. However, because I set my firm boundaries in the beginning and had him blocked on Facebook, it would not allow me to message him. Instead, I relayed the message to my mother who has maintained a distant relationship with him throughout his years of use. If you find yourself loving someone who is addicted, boundaries are a must! They are needed for yourself as well as for the person who is sick. When the day comes that your addicted loved one seeks treatment and finds recovery, those boundaries should be lowered and adjusted gradually. Allow your loved one the opportunity to work on themselves without the distraction of gaining their lost relationships back quickly. Returning relationships and privileges back to “normal” too quickly can send your addicted loved one back into the cycle of addiction and create a setback for them and for you.
Three rules for re-entering a relationship with an addicted loved one:
- Gradually adjust boundaries. I heard it once said that healing from divorce takes about one month for each year you were married. I think the same equation can be applied here. My brother was using for 30 years, therefore 30 months of clean and serene living would be a good measure of healing time. This is not a be-all, end-all rule – but it is a great starting point when looking at the big picture. Adjustments to boundaries and the relationship won’t happen overnight: Give it time.
- Provide support in the form of encouragement. Avoid providing their physical needs. Our compassionate side never wants to see our loved ones suffer. It is natural to want to help them get a place to live, a car to drive, and a job. However, these are things they need to do on their own, in order to develop life skills critical to them, and it is crucial that they are allowed the opportunity to work these things out for themselves with little to no help from you. Doing things for them, or making these things easy for them is only enabling, and can send them right back into their addictive behaviors.
- Forgive their past. Forgiveness can be one of the most difficult steps in the healing process, for both you and your addicted loved one. However, it’s the healthiest step for your well-being. Forgiveness is more about you than your loved one: Hanging on to past wrongs and resentment can eat away at you – keeping you in the past. Forgiving gives you a piece of mind. Remember, what has happened in the past is in the past. It is crucial that you and your addicted loved one, forgive the past – and leave it in the past. Look at each day as a new day and avoid the desire to compare it to past days or past events. The slate is clean again.
As for me and my brother, I’m cautiously optimistic at this point. I have not opened up a reciprocal conversation with him yet, but I anxiously await the day when we can start moving toward greater restoration. As he forgives himself and continues to seek a life of recovery, I am confident we can re-enter the loving relationship we once had and start to make up for a lot of lost time.