Families and Addiction
December 23, 2003 11:02 AM   Subscribe

This is a somewhat personal question. I've recently joined a 12-step fellowship to rid myself of an addiction. It's going well- almost 2 months free. I haven't told my family what's going on yet. Over the last 4 years, we haven't seen that much of eachother, so they don't have much idea of how bad my problem has gotten. They tend towards the judgemental and smothering. My sister is a social worker and she may have put 2 & 2 together. The obvious concerns aside, I'm also not that interested in invoking a lot of drama right now. To any MeFites with experience in these matters, what's a good way of breaking things like these to your family. Thanks.
posted by jonmc to Human Relations (44 answers total)
Jonmc, I assume you're asking because you're going to see them this week? If so, is there a reason that you feel you must tell them now? Also, not to get really, Really personal, but do you have a sponsor you could talk to about it?
posted by pomegranate at 11:11 AM on December 23, 2003

I have judgemental but not smothering parents. Although I was never in your situation exactly, I've eventually learned that it's not my problem, it's their problem. If it's something they're going to need to know eventually, I am now pretty open about it, and they can get upset and then get over it (or more likely resigned to it.) I find it much less stressful. Why should I be upset by stressing about how and when to tell them when I could just tell them and let them be upset for a while. They're the frickin' judgemental ones.
posted by callmejay at 11:12 AM on December 23, 2003

I know this isn't what you asked, but need you tell them, Jon? I've heard that these 12 step programs make mending fences part of the recovery process, but since you haven't said anything about making amends maybe you're only concerned with how to break the news. Maybe you might want to consider whether it's even necessary.
posted by orange swan at 11:13 AM on December 23, 2003

First, congratulations, jonmc. Good luck in maintaining over the years ahead.

Although every family is F**ed up in its own way (paraphrasing), in my experience most problems within families are the result of misplaced expectations. Your parents are who they are. If you think there's some kind of strategic way to share this information that will cause them to react with kindness and understanding, you're setting yourself for disappointment and strained feelings.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't try, but don't have as as your goal that your parents will have some idealized reaction to the news. Go in with the healthy, mature objective of sharing an intimate part of your life with people you love and are close to. Having done this, you will have behaved courageously and with integrity, and you can observe their flawed response as a problem they have, and not as rooted in some deficiency you have.

That would be my approach; it's not for everybody.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:14 AM on December 23, 2003

pomegranate-basically, yeah. I do have a sponsor, and he's left the question open. My official policy, that I've told to those close to me who do know is to keep it under wraps. But I figure I'll have to come clean eventually. I do have a feeling they'll have major league issues with it.
posted by jonmc at 11:18 AM on December 23, 2003

I told my parents, before I was going to see them at some event that was going to involve too much drinking, that I was trying to quit drinking. I didn't say I had quit [which I had] but that I was "trying to cut down". I think this was useful in that it made me not seem like a holier than thou sonofabitch, but it also didn't raise eyebrows that I basically didn't drink at all when everyone else was getting soused. I offered to discuss it with anyone who wanted, but no one took me up on the offer, though my Dad mumbled something along the lines of "quitting when you're young is a good idea" My major issue was tlaking to people who said "But you didn't have a drinking problem...." and finding a way to say "Yeah, I did" without pointing the finger and saying "And incidentally, so do you."

I think just mentioning it if someone brings it up, or casually saying something is an okay idea, no need to tell everyone about the 12-step tango unless you are on step five or nine and feel like you need to go further than that. At that point you can deal with it and they can see you as on the recovery path and can hopefully go easy on the judgemental part. Congrats, I know it's not easy.
posted by jessamyn at 11:21 AM on December 23, 2003

My major issue was tlaking to people who said "But you didn't have a drinking problem...." and finding a way to say "Yeah, I did" without pointing the finger and saying "And incidentally, so do you."

Bingo, jessamyn. Not that either of my parents have drinking problems, but my mom at least would be stunned and want to know every detail, which is one, none of her business, and two, more than she could handle for a buncha reasons.

I think I actually remember her saying to me as a kid (I was around 9 or 10, IIRC), "If you were ever really on drugs, I wouldn't want you as my son, and I've seen her be disparaging towards other people with drinking problems, gossiping about them and treating them dissmissively.

Also, thanks for the words of encouragement.
posted by jonmc at 11:26 AM on December 23, 2003

so whos the longest sober then ?
posted by sgt.serenity at 11:30 AM on December 23, 2003

It's going to be hard either way--why not just let this be the messed-up holiday (or more messed up than usual)?? If there's always liquor on the table or in everyone's hands, it'll be an issue if you don't have any.

In a way, it's like coming out--always a big drama (what's a family get-together without drama anyway?), and more scary before actually doing it. (you'll feel better afterwards even if they don't) : >
posted by amberglow at 11:39 AM on December 23, 2003

I'd just remember that you're very vulnerable right now and you should put yourself first. There's some good advice here already, but you need to be realistic about whether you have the energy reserves you need, and the firm footing you need, to openly engage your family on this issue. If you don't think they will necessarily put your needs unequivocally first, then consider waiting until you're in a better place. 2 months is especially fragile. Long enough to build up a little sense of security, not long enough to represent real distance. Use caution. Hold your course.

Break it to them when YOU feel comfortable doing so. If you think their participation will not be helpful right now, then wait. Eventually, everyone who's anyone in your life should get involved in the process, but if they are really as judgemental as you say, they will probably spend all their time on issues like "how did you ever get addicted in the first place?" or "why do you think a few drinks/bowls/tabs/pills/whatever is such a big problem?" and that doesn't help you right now.
posted by scarabic at 11:40 AM on December 23, 2003

Jonmc, if this is the first family holiday you've been to in a while without your substance of choice, that will offer adrenalin enough - you will probably have a lot of things going on internally already. Maybe the biggest present you could give yourself would be to handle it like jessamyn did, and try to have a relatively chill experience. There are plenty of opportunities to discuss this in the future, when you've gotten a bit more on your feet.
posted by pomegranate at 11:41 AM on December 23, 2003

I don't know your parents, obviously, but I think you might be surprised how supportive your loved ones can be, given the opportunity. My parents always told me as a teenager that if they found out I was taking drugs they would basically disown me. But when I needed their help at age 23, they offered it readily and without question or judgment. In the end, they just wanted me to be okay. So don't underestimate them.

If, however, you feel like you're not ready to discuss it, don't. The worst thing you could do would be to set yourself up for big negative emotions that will allow you the requisite self-pity to abandon your program.
posted by vraxoin at 11:47 AM on December 23, 2003

I was just going to write basically what scarabic said. If you know there's going to be drama and you don't want to deal with drama right now, then it might be a good idea to wait a little and choose a time when you feel stronger.

If you think it's unavoidable, you have a couple of options - you could either deflect the questions somehow (including lying if you have to if that's acceptable to you), or give as little as possible away (in other words, what jessamyn said about 'not drinking right now').

Or you could come right out and say whatever you need to say. If you do, remember that your only job is to speak your truth lovingly. You can never fully know how another person will react to what you have to say, so don't spend lots of time trying to damage-control. Try to say what you have to say without any blame or accusations ('I learned it from watching YOU, dad').

My girlfriend is currently going through a lot of the same stuff as she's telling her homophobic parents that we're getting married. There's only so much you can do or say - the rest is up to them.

Congratulations and good luck!
posted by widdershins at 11:58 AM on December 23, 2003

Jon, here's to you. I know how hard other people can make it.

A year ago July I quit drinking and smoking, because my doctor said it would ease the kidney stones, besides being good for me. A lot of people took my new behavior as a reprimand. If I wasn't drinking, then they felt like they had to drink less, and it bothered them. Invitations slowed. Merely by being present and not drinking, I was making some folks feel bad. Like they were being chastised, or like they were coming up short, or like they were weak.

Maybe I talked too much about it, but maybe not. When someone offered to buy a drink, I said, thanks I'll have a Coke, or no thanks, I'm not drinking. And then the questions would start, and then I'd pull out the x-rays and my medical file, so before too many days had passed I was just saying, "I quit. I don't drink anymore" and let them do and think what they liked.

After a year, I resumed drinking and smoking, at a much reduced rate, because the kidney stones seemed to be gone. And those same people actually clapped me on the back and welcomed me back to the fold. The veil between us was lifted, and I was back in the brotherood of imbibers. At the same time, everyone tsk-tsked when I began smoking again.

Hypocrites, the lot.

It was as easy to get back on the demon rum and the tobacco as it had been to get off of it, but I actually kept my return to drinking quiet for a while to watch the bastards unroll their own problems by pinning them on me and my not-drinking status, and because most of the money I had been saving by not drinking turned out to have been spent buying drinks for others. The fewer people that knew I was drinking, the fewer drinks I ended up buying.

So, Jon, anyone who quits an addiction gets whatever support from me they need. Let me know if you need any. I'm not a pro, I'm not in a program, I've never had an addiction to anything, but having been a temporary member of the quitting club, I can understand the difficulties of some parts of the new lifestyle you're building. Whatever you're quitting, let me know if I can help. Just an MTA ride away.

PS: Some people thought I was lying about why I quit drinking. They were the worst, because they gave round-eyed knowing looks and smirks, and made subtle comments, and brought me sodas and juices unasked, as if that was their good deed for the day. Those people? I don't see them any more.

PPS: Besides saving a boatload of money, I also got so much writing and reading done in that year, that I doubled my total word count to date, and still have a long list of new ideas to see about developing later. It was a flowering.
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:39 PM on December 23, 2003

learning that how my parents felt (my mother in particular) wasn't my responsibility took a huge weight of my chest, but i have no idea how to help someone else learn the same thing (and it wasn't easy - not the kind of thing i'd want to do while having to handle anything else important in my life at the same time).

so could you run away? or, at least, have a bolt hole prepared for if it all goes tits up? someone you know can provide a bed and a phone call to shut them up / hold them off if you need to get out for a break? maybe this is terrible advice and i'm a terrible coward, but i think it would help me.

good luck.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:45 PM on December 23, 2003

jonmc - a sibling of mine went through this issue a while ago. The biggest issue that came up, or should I say the most "controversial" was that my parents were upset that they were the very last to know. They had been good, loving, doting parents and could not understand why said sibling told every single person in her inner and outer circle before telling her own mom and dad. Savor the irony I guess, of you bringing this to meta. As hard as it can be to be honest to your parents, I would offer that in light of telling all us people you don't really know about such important news (and your recovery is a celebration!) you owe it to them to let them in on it. Good luck, kid.
posted by vito90 at 1:21 PM on December 23, 2003

Counter to vraxoin's comment, you might also be surprised how unsupporting your parents can be.

Don't set yourself up with expectations. Do what you need to do, and let the chips fall where they may. You can not control the outcome. Consquently, you must not accept responsibility for the outcome.

You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can not pick your parents. If they estrange you, then you will have to accept that they are imperfect beings with issues larger than they can sensibly handle. There will be nothing to gain by blaming them, and there is nothing to gain by blaming yourself.

Know that you have friends who love and support you, and if it all goes poorly, know that through the hurt, the people you have chosen as friends are there for you.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:46 PM on December 23, 2003

If they estrange you, then you will have to accept that they are imperfect beings with issues larger than they can sensibly handle

Estrangements only one possible negative outcome. The other would be them barging into my life and not leaving me any space whatsoever and driving me batshit that way. I haven't decided exactly what I'm doing yet, but I'm leaning towards keeping it under my hat, just for the sake of a sane Christmas.
posted by jonmc at 1:53 PM on December 23, 2003

I would just echo scarabic's post: very good advice.

Put yourself first now. Don't get yourself into something that could sap your strength - you need it for the journey you are undertaking.

If your parents won't be too good at dealing with this, and can't be counted on to add to your support, wait till you're strong enough to deal with any crap they might fling fling your way.

Protect yourself first, because the question you raise is, why do you want to tell your family, and what can you expect to get out of it?
posted by Blue Stone at 2:16 PM on December 23, 2003

I also agree with Scarabic. if you feel that hiding it from them is driving you batty, perhaps you could wait till there's a confession time locked in with your program (in AA it would be step 5). However, that may be spilling more information then you'd ever care to.

As others have said, put yourself first. You don't want anybody's comments/reactions to make you long for your addiction.
posted by dobbs at 2:31 PM on December 23, 2003

Jonmc, when and what to tell-that is indeed the 64 dollar question.

All I can add is to not tell unless and until you are prepared to handle ANY reaction you might get. Your family may be incredibly supportive or they may be total smothering pains in the patootie- ya gotta be ready for either reaction.

I vote with the people who say wait till after Christmas if possible.

I wish you the best.
posted by konolia at 3:06 PM on December 23, 2003

The other would be them barging into my life and not leaving me any space whatsoever and driving me batshit that way.
That's why answering machines were invented, jon (Also, you could not go if you don't want to deal with them--come to a movie and for chinese with us jews) : >
posted by amberglow at 4:13 PM on December 23, 2003

you owe it to them to let them in on it

Not necessarily. You owe it to *yourself* to do what's best for you and your recovery; you don't owe anything to anyone who might make the process harder.

And congrats, jon - I wish you astounding success!
posted by boomchicka at 4:50 PM on December 23, 2003

Christmas is not a good time for revelations to the family, IMHO. It is a time already charged with tension caused by all sorts of things, not the least of which is throwing together a bunch of relatives who barely speak to each other the rest of the year (often for good reason). If your refraining from your substance of choice is likely to come up as an issue, preempt it by mentioning early on that you have a minor medical condition that requires you to do so temporarily. A search on Google should help you find a suitable condition.

At the end of the day, only you will know the right time to let people in on what is happening, but you should make sure that you are ready for any fallout that may come and it may be better to do this at a time when you are not trapped into hanging around anyone who is likely to react in a negative manner. What about writing a letter to your family, explaining what is happening and why? This may remove some of the emotional stress of having to do it face-to-face.

Whatever happens, good luck and don't let other people tell you how you should run your life.
posted by dg at 4:59 PM on December 23, 2003

excuse me , if you dont have any experience of this matter would you all mind keeping out of this thread with your opinions please ? in case you havent noticed , you're playing with somebodys life here.
posted by sgt.serenity at 6:09 PM on December 23, 2003

that may sound a bit strong , but i dont think its a very healthy thing to tell a person just begining to overcome an addiction that they might like to take a drink at christmas.
posted by sgt.serenity at 6:32 PM on December 23, 2003

Hey, sgt., I didn't see anyone here advise that-but if I missed it , I agree with you.

BTW, Jonmc, it occurs to me that many medications have alcohol warnings on them (I'm not supposed to drink on mine, for example.) I don't know if you have any regular prescriptions, or even regular OTC med use, but if so, it might make a handy-dandy excuse. Not that you really have to have one, but sometimes it just makes things easier.
posted by konolia at 6:50 PM on December 23, 2003

The other would be them barging into my life and not leaving me any space whatsoever and driving me batshit that way.

This is something you can control. It is, however, very hurtful and difficult for all parties involved.

I've done it myself: completely closed off all communication with my parents. They made it easier by respecting my wish. If they had not respected my wish, I'd have got caller ID, not answered the door, whatever.

When we reconciled, things were much, much better. It was harsh and perhaps cruel, but it was necessary for me to protect myself from them at that point, and necessary for them to have a year to think about their role in it all.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:53 PM on December 23, 2003

why not just let this be the messed-up holiday (or more messed up than usual)?? If there's always liquor on the table or in everyone's hands, it'll be an issue if you don't have any.
posted by sgt.serenity at 6:58 PM on December 23, 2003

Sgt., I don't think Amberglow is recommending drinking. He's saying

1) the holiday is already messed up
2) there's drinks freely flowing
3) Not drinking will already bring the issue to a head

Therefore: Might as well tell the family about the addiction over Christmas. (Am I right, Amberglow?)

Jon, good luck with all of this, whether you decide to tell them or not. Don't lie though and palm it off on a medical condition. I'm lucky to have a supportive family who understands my various vices, but I realize not all families are like this, and it may be best to keep them out of the situation until you're more comfortable talking about it. (DG hits the nail on the head.)
posted by Happydaz at 7:11 PM on December 23, 2003

FWIW, I read that as "If everyone is [addiction here] and you're not, they're going to notice, so you may as well tell them you've stopped [addiction here], and get the blow-up over with already" not as "you may as well have a [addictive substance] because everyone else is having one".

Whatever you decide to do, jonmc, good luck.
posted by eilatan at 7:12 PM on December 23, 2003

I join everyone here in wishing you the best with this, jonmc—and in urging you to put yourself first. I wouldn't presume to offer advice on when to tell them; as for how, my brother came out to me by first asking me how I'd feel if he said he was gay, I looked blank and said "fine, I guess" (thinking he was just being hypothetical), and he responded "Well, I'm gay." Quick and painless, and he at least got a sense that I wasn't going to go ballistic on him. (And for what it's worth, a number of family members I would have thought would go ballistic were fine with it. You never can tell.)
posted by languagehat at 7:28 PM on December 23, 2003

i just wanted to reiterate boomchicka's excellent word's of wisdom. a lot of things, addiction among them, are born in the emotional stew of early life among parents and sibs. tread softly in those areas, the guideline always being the advancement of your own recovery. i realized something else after far too long: i am powerless over them too!

oh, and good on ya, jonmc. i'm beaming some light your way, man.
posted by quonsar at 7:31 PM on December 23, 2003

jonmc, congratulations - this is excellent news. Count me among those who will be rooting for you. Quite frankly, your pain has sometimes been evident, and I hope this will be a path to peace for you. You are a nice guy, and much beloved here - your many friends here and elsewhere will continue to help you and support you on this path.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:38 PM on December 23, 2003

( gives jon 60 day meta coin)

If you have started to address and rectify your addiction then most would agree that this is good. would your family disagree?
someone once told me to not make any big life decisions for 6 months. If you are to see them before this, honesty is the best. Your not responsible for their reaction, that sounds like my mom (23 years sober) i know but...

then go to a meeting.

I swear I'm going to get that into a bumpersticker for her.

welcome aboard jon.
posted by clavdivs at 8:13 PM on December 23, 2003

I just want to chime with everyone above who has said that you should first focus on you and your recovery, before worrying about things that might do anything but help.

Congratulations jon, and good luck! We're rooting for you!
posted by riffola at 8:43 PM on December 23, 2003

jon, answer only if you wish: is this an AA 12-step, or for some other addiction? The assumption in this thread has been alcoholism. I hesitate to make that assumption.

Please do a followup somehow, to let us know how it all went.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:40 PM on December 23, 2003

I'm totally behind people ridding themselves of addictive habits whatever they may be, so good on you, buddy. When I eventually show up in New York to rock out most righteously with you someday, I'll be totally cool with you being fully sober, and I hope you'll be OK with me being un-.

I don't really understand why you'd need to 'break it' to your family, though, if you've cleaned up. I could understand them being dismayed if you were currently banging smack or something.

I'm not even clear why you'd need to tell them in that case, although I respect that you might want to. But that may probably be because I've got me a somewhat odd family dynamic.

Anyway, no need to explain yourself. We are indeed rooting for you.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:10 PM on December 23, 2003

I was too cowardly to tell my family that I had quit smoking (15 years ago) and drinking (7 years ago) until enough time had passed with the new behavior that I felt sure that I would not fail in these attempts and go back to the addictive behavior. I likened it to telling someone I was on a diet and then having them catch me eating a cookie. Although quitting smoking really wasn't a that big of a deal, the drinking thing was - I approached it very gingerly, only saying, "Thanks, but no thanks," when offered alcohol, sipping on club soda with a twist, or whatever. Finally, a couple of years down the road, I would venture little comments like, "Oh, I'm really into lemonade and diet tonic now - it's so refreshing..." etc. I don't think you owe anyone any explanation at all unless you feel like giving one. And jonmc, I too noticed your pain earlier and sincerely wish you the best of luck.
posted by Lynsey at 11:37 PM on December 23, 2003

Therefore: Might as well tell the family about the addiction over Christmas. (Am I right, Amberglow?)

FWIW, I read that as "If everyone is [addiction here] and you're not, they're going to notice, so you may as well tell them you've stopped [addiction here], and get the blow-up over with already" not as "you may as well have a [addictive substance] because everyone else is having one".

Yup, and yup--I'm not recommending he drink or anything, just saying that if you're the only one who says no or is without one, when in the past you've always had one, that it pretty much raises the issue automatically.
posted by amberglow at 5:13 AM on December 24, 2003

right amber , i've been talking crap then , always a first time for everything, i humbly bow and scrape with fullsome apologies .
I've been thinking about this intial question and heres my answer : burn the house down while you're there and then while the fire engines tackle the blaze , mention your new found sobriety to your family , they will be too preoccupied to grill you .
Merry xmas to all !
posted by sgt.serenity at 7:04 AM on December 24, 2003

so whos the longest sober then ?
Notice when overcoming a bad habit, counting the days you've been good may add some pressure. Suggest, "taking one day at a time". Know that if you do "back slide", tomorrow is always a new beginning: never having to look back keeping forward motion towards your goal. This may sounds like not having a conscious, yet this is how I stopped bitting my nails after trying everything for 20+ years. In the end the # of days sober means nothing if one day you are not, also "one day" is a high score that can be easily beaten.
posted by thomcatspike at 7:42 AM on December 24, 2003

After a lot of debate, I've decided to hold off for a while on telling them, mainly just cause I'd like a peaceful xmas. However, I do sincerely thank everyone for the advice and well-wishes.

To everyone at MeFi, even foldy and skallas, Happy Chamakwanzamas and New Year!
posted by jonmc at 7:59 AM on December 24, 2003

Suggest, "taking one day at a time". Know that if you do "back slide", tomorrow is always a new beginning

not if you drop dead its not.
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:36 PM on December 24, 2003

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