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Decision Making 101: Life in a Family Affected by Addiction and Recovery

Addiction Recovery for Families, Beverly Buncher, Featured Article | January 4, 2016

Day in and day out family members make decisions. They make decisions about their lives and their futures. Sometimes their heads are clear and they are doing so in the best of circumstances with healthy intentions and situations in mind.

But when a family member is closely related to someone struggling with drug or alcohol use, the decision making process can tend to get clogged up. This stoppage can look like indecision, fear, confusion or simply too many choices to pick from when what is really happening, behind the scenes, is a complete fog of anxiety clouded by the uncertainty that goes with addiction.

This fog is so debilitating, that it can far outlast a loved one’s active use and unless one stays aware, it can cloud and debilitate future decision-making capacities.

Take my client Mira. Mira has a husband and 3 kids. The husband has been sober 7 years this time around. Before that, he had a 7-year relapse preceded by 20 years of sobriety. Towards the end of the seven-year relapse, Mira moved to a new town for a job, leaving her troubled husband ‘home alone’ so to speak.

With all of the children grown, it didn’t seem to be a problem at the time. The two of them talked it over and decided they would simply have a commuter marriage for a while, just as they had had several years previously, when her husband was working upstate for a shipping company. She’d been sad about their having to be apart, but was onboard about the career move. As a matter of fact, she’d been very supportive.

He was not able to return the favor when she moved. In her denial, she failed to see that he was in no condition to be alone with lots of time on his hands. And so she left for one full year, only to watch him deteriorate from afar.

Mira left the job, which was supposed to last another year, at the end of the first year, to help him get help.

Now, eight years later, and seven into his current recovery, she was considering an opportunity which would allow her to travel for work and be close to their children and grandchildren who lived near Chicago, Illinois.

Granted, she’d have to leave at least twice a month for about 10 days each, which would mean that she and her husband would be away from each other for half of the month. For some reason, it seemed to be much worse of an option than it was… and she had to wonder: was it really that big of a deal? After all, many of her friends had commuter marriages. And an opportunity to be near the grandchildren for half the month was almost too good to be true…

But, somehow, Mira was stalling and so she brought the issue to a coaching session. It took the first 15 minutes of the session for Mira to see what was going on: she was assuming that her husband would completely fall apart again if she wasn’t around to keep him going.

Unraveling that belief and reassembling her grounding in the present moment, helped Mira get back into today and out of the seven-year-old nightmare that was keeping her from making a healthy choice now.

First we looked at what was going on back then: The signs of addiction were all there, clear as a bell:

  • bloodshot eyes
  • the ever-present Visine on the counter
  • her husband disappearing for hours at a time, the lies about where he had been and where he was going,
  • his inability to keep the computer open when she came near him
  • his leaving the room and whispering when the phone rang
  • his guarding his cell phone as if it were a secret treasure than no one else must touch
  • large and small amounts disappearing from the checkbook and credit card which he savagely oversaw
  • He called himself the watchdog of the money, though it turned out he had been the wolf in sheep’s clothing all along…

Then we compared it to today:

  • Clear eyes
  • The same prescriptions he’d been given when in treatment, with adjustments as needed
  • Total transparency about how he was spending his time, where he was going and who he was with
  • A computer that stayed open and on the same page regardless of who walked by
  • Phone calls made and answered in front of her
  • An open checkbook policy and total money transparency between the two of them
  • Both of them working recovery programs and sponsoring people

Yet, due to the dysfunction of seven years ago, she was afraid to make a decision today.

This type of traumatic response to a decision today isn’t that uncommon among family members. The old traumas of the active addiction days sometimes lay right under the mind’s surface, waiting for triggers to awaken them.

So, what can a family member do when a decision seems more difficult to make than it “should be” and it could be that the past may be clouding the present.

  1. Get calm. One of the best ways to get clarity is to start by getting calm. Calm is an acquired taste that you can experience consistently, even when things are chaotic around you. You can start by spending 5 minutes each morning and evening in meditation, either watching the breath or slowly breathing in and out, in natural, yet deep, measured breaths.
  2. Observe yourself and others. Become aware of yourself and all that is going on around you. Without judgment or malice, see the facts of each situation. Don’t share them with others immediately, but do be aware. Jot them down if you feel you may forget them. Allow yourself to see without blinders on, a sign of living in recovery rather than in the denial of family addiction.
  3. Feel your feelings. In addition to seeing what is actually going on around you, feel how what you are seeing and experiencing is affecting you. What are you feeling? Anger? Pain? Sadness? Feel each feeling, following it to its natural end which is to leave as it came and pass out of your awareness like a cloud moves across the sky.
  4. Share what you are seeing and feeling with a trusted friend, sponsor, coach, therapist or friend. Allow yourself to be supported. Choose your supporters carefully. Preferably, choose someone who will:
  • allow you to vent
  • listen deeply and objectively without judgment
  • reflect back to you what they are hearing you say
  • ask you questions that will help you see what is going on in and around you more clearly
  1. Be open to what you hear your guide ask or say. Breathe deeply and face yourself and your situation fully and openly, without fear or resentment. When you are open to life on life’s term’s it is often much easier to face than when you are defensively blocking things that conflict with your way of thinking.
  2. Allow what you have learned to sink in and inform your life. Know that everyone and everything in your life is there as your teacher and make the decision to learn! If what you are learning is different than what you had thought, yet it resonates somehow, sit with it for a while. If you find you need further help processing it and using it to move forward, consider hiring a coach or therapist to help you move forward. If that is not possible for you, make use of the amazing free support groups in your area and on the phone. Everything from Alanon to Nar-anon, to NAMI, to SMART Recovery, is there to help you help yourself grow! And if you are open to life’s new insights and beginnings, grow you will!
  3. Enjoy each moment as it comes and hold the past with all of its dysfunction lightly in your memory and your arms, knowing that yesterday can inform today but will not imprison you to repeat its mistakes if your commitment is to grow and learn each and every day.

This process will not guarantee a particular result. But it could allow you to let go of trauma as the source of your inability to decide. Once you have done so, you will be able to choose whatever is best for you and your family today! In Mira’s case, she realized she wanted to spend more time with her husband, not less, not because she was afraid he would fall apart without her, rather, because she wanted to hang out with her husband who, in his sobriety, had become her best friend!


Beverly Buncher, MA, PCC, MRLC, CTPC, Family Recovery Life Coach, helps family members of addicts turn their chaos to sanity, through her Be A Loving Mirror (BALM®) Family Recovery Coaching Program. Recently dubbed “The Leading Family Recovery Coach in the Nation”, Beverly is founder and Director of The BALM® Institute for Family Recovery Life Coaching. (slots available for the March cohort with pre-requisites available now.) Her signature program, The Be A Loving Mirror (BALM®) Comprehensive Family Recovery Education Program provides a full year of powerful growth for families affected by substance use disorder and other addictions. (To learn more, go to http://familyrecoveryresources.com/programs/families/)

Author of the E-Books Reflect Reality with The Four Cornerstones of Family Recovery and Stand Strong on the Four Foundations of Family Recovery and the forthcoming book Be A Loving Mirror: Reflect Reality and Transform Your Life, Coach Bev is internationally recognized as a Professional Certified Coach by the ICF (International Coach Federation) and is also a Certified True Purpose Coach. A former teacher and school principal, Bev works with her clients individually and in groups, in person and on the phone. You can learn more about her work on her website at www.familyrecoveryresources.com , and by reading her website blog and her In The Rooms Family Recovery Blog at http://12stepfamily.com . To contact Bev, you may email her at bbuncher@familyrecoveryresources.com or call her at 786 859 4050 or 888 998 BALM® (2256).