Explaining Your Recovery to Relatives

family gathering outdoors for birthday party - recovery story

It’s Up to You

Choosing to share your journey of addiction and recovery is probably one of the most personal revelations you’ll have in life. It’s important to remember that you decide what to talk about, what details are important, and how much to discuss.

When we’re at family gatherings, we’re often not sure who knows what. Since people are fallible, it’s quite possible there’s a bit of gossip involving any number of family members, their circumstances, and their actions. If you don’t want to be part of the rumor mill, you may have to step forward and talk about your journey.

You’re in total control of your narrative.

To do this effectively, you may have to establish some boundaries, determine appropriate topics, and offer other resources to reduce myths and stigmas not only about your situation, but also addiction in general.

Establishing Boundaries

You’re under no obligation to discuss your addiction and recovery with anyone. What someone else perceives of you isn’t your concern—but that’s a difficult concept for most of us to accept, even in the best of circumstances. If you decide it’s fitting and helpful to talk about your experiences, however, you still have the right to make your boundaries clear.

Jennifer Rollin, a mental health therapist, wrote about boundaries for Psychology Today. She suggests three ways to establish boundaries:

  • Tap in to your innate knowledge of yes and no
  • Develop a way to tolerate others’ reactions
  • Continue to practice self-care

How might you put these methods into practice if you choose to explain your recovery to family members? Here’s an example:

You decide you’re going to talk to a small gathering of relatives about your sobriety. You ask everyone to take a seat, and you explain the facts: you once had a problem with substance abuse; you sought and completed treatment for it; and you appreciate their understanding when you choose not to partake in certain actions or events you feel compromise your decision to stay sober.

If people want to ask questions, you can answer the ones you feel comfortable with in whatever language and detail feel appropriate for you. If you choose not to answer particular questions, simply say, “I don’t have an answer for that right now. Perhaps we can talk about it another time.” This “I” statement is non-confrontational, maintains your yes/no boundary, and leaves the door open for discussion in the future so the other person feels heard as well.

If some people in the group have negative reactions, or start making comments of blame or shame, remember: those responses are more about them and less about you. You can redirect the conversation by saying something like, “I understand this news may initially be upsetting. I wanted to be honest with all of you. Maybe after some time passes and we’ve all had time to process this information, I can answer some of your questions.” This “I” statement allows you to acknowledge their reactions without taking responsibility for them, and makes a point that you’ll return to a more reasonable discussion without debating anyone in the heat of the moment.

If this initial reveal triggers you in some way, stay calm. Deep down, you probably expected this, especially from people who don’t know you well or see you often. They may need more time to accept what you’ve told them, process it, and see you in a new light. Again, this isn’t your concern or responsibility, which is why you need to maintain your approach to sobriety in all the meaningful ways you’ve used so far.

Determining Appropriate Topics

Just because you’ve dealt with substance abuse and are now in recovery doesn’t mean your life is the proverbial open book. Again, you can choose to be as open as you like. However, if there are family members who were involved somehow before your treatment or after, it may be necessary to have a frank talk with them about what happened and where you are now.

Here are some reasons why:

  • Making amends. If you’re using a 12-Step program to help maintain sobriety, acknowledging your wrongs and righting them if possible is a critical component of this process.
  • Continued recovery. As part of your wellness journey, you may have to address causation factors such as abuse, dysfunction, neglect, and other conflict that may be part of the family history and require healing.
  • What you need from them. Whether it’s support to avoid triggers or distance to reduce negative influences, this conversation is critical to address your needs in a direct and rational manner.

Be prepared for people to offer all sorts of opinions and advice. Try to stay gracious and understanding, but be open to discussion. However, you’re under no obligation to do anything outside of what your treatment plan outlines.

Offer Other Resources

It may be helpful to encourage your family members to learn more about addiction without you being the only source. This neutralizes the topic a bit more, eliminates some of the stigma surrounding addiction, and helps all of you find more common ground. Some books that may help include:

Also consider directing loved ones to qualitative scientific sites that discuss facts regarding addiction and recovery.

Find More Resources Through Cottonwood Tucson

While Cottonwood Tucson doesn’t endorse specific companies or programs, it offers an extensive list of resources you can use to enable clear communication with members of your family.

By Tracey L. Kelley

For more information about Cottonwood Tucson, AZ mental health and addiction treatment center, call (888) 727-0441. We are ready to help you or your loved one find lasting recovery.



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