Amy sits nervously in the center of a group circle made up of recovering addicts and their loved ones to read aloud a letter she has written to her family. With her mother seated across from her, Amy takes a deep breath, and begins in a shaky voice:
“Mom, as a recovering alcoholic I need us to move away from a dysfunctional relationship where I feel like I’m protecting you from Dad when he is drinking, or serving as the only person you can talk to about your dynamic with him,” says Amy, who is 20 days into an addiction treatment program for alcohol abuse. This is Amy’s first time to share a “Family Letter” in the weekly group sessions attended by her fellow addicts in recovery and their significant others or family members.
Amy is protective of her mom. She wasn’t close to her father while growing up because he had a drinking problem, which made him short-tempered and violent, so she avoided him to avoid run-ins. However, she stepped in to protect her mother a few times, which was traumatic … and led her to begin drinking to numb her pain and forget about the stress at home.
“I’m willing to stop stepping into my co-dependent protective role, if you’re willing to consider moving away from Dad. Unless you move away from him, I’m afraid he’ll keep hurting you. When he hurts you and you’re in pain, it hurts me. I feel your pain. And I drink and use because I don’t want to feel that pain and I don’t want to feel so afraid for you. If nothing changes in your relationship with Dad or his drinking, then I will have to distance myself from both of you to protect my recovery. I will still love you no matter what.
“Dad, I know you probably aren’t going to be here today to hear this, but I hope you can get the kind of help I am now getting. I feel so much better. I know you need treatment, too, and I know things would be better for you, and us, if you got it.”
Amy’s mother silently nods, her eyes filled with tears, as her daughter reads the letter.
The addiction counselor who is facilitating the session commended Amy for the courage and hope she has demonstrated by speaking up. He gently asks Amy’s mother to talk about the emotions she is feeling when Amy says these things. This prompts Amy and her mother to begin discussing difficult topics in an open and honest way without having to point the finger or blame each other.
Even though Amy’s father didn’t attend this family session, it is helpful that one concerned family member is there to hear Amy, and to support her and her recovery.
Studies have shown that involvement from even one family member can be enough to strengthen the family system, reinforce change in the addict, and help the addict stay engaged and motivated in their recovery process. Family involvement also has been shown to increase aftercare participation and lead to a higher likelihood of successful long-term recovery.