Holidays, Togetherness and Recovery at the Family Table

recovery at the family thanksgiving table


This is a good time to talk about the role of the family in recovery. It’s the Thanksgiving week and let’s face it – holidays are wonderful, but getting together with far-flung relatives can push every emotional button. Especially for those in early recovery.


Last Sunday I had the pleasure of sitting in on a Family Program session at Sanford House. For once, I was able to see addiction from the family’s perspective, not through the eyes of a person with a substance use disorder… And looking at addiction as a relative (when you are a person in recovery) is enlightening. In fact, being the loved one of a person in recovery has its own stressors and emotional triggers.


Looking at addiction from a different perspective…

Addressing those emotional pitfalls is what the Family Program is all about. The facilitator, Lynnel Brewster, told the gathered family members that this session was not an Al-anon meeting. It was also not a meeting where their loved ones in treatment would be invited. It was an educational opportunity for family members, and a chance to voice fears, questions and concerns.


Something that came to the fore immediately was the expressed sense of guilt and frustration. The notion that addiction had taken up residence in these homes like a demanding, unwanted house-guest. In the case of the parents, had they given this child more attention than their siblings? Had addiction become the squeaky wheel? From the spouse, would they be able to question their partner’s behavior in recovery without derailing the process? Would their loved one’s recovery “break?” Because, their loved one seemed fragile and breakable.


table recovery fragile and lonely


And God forbid, they (we) would not want things to return to the way they were before…


Recovery is so much more than just not using a substance… Lynnel Brewster


This was not a lesson in “tough love” exactly. But Lynnel did address the fact that recovery works best when the family works together. The hurt and resentment harbored by family members needs to be addressed, so that everyone is on the same track toward recovery. And when the family member who has garnered all the attention and concern for so long comes home, how are they going to fit in? And how are those who have taken up the slack going to recast their roles in the family system now that the squeaky wheel has been greased?


Holidays and togetherness…

Which brings me to the dance families perform around the person with the addiction: the exquisite watchfulness and the suspicion. As Lynnel puts it, “Your loved one needs to give living amends. The words ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I’ll do better this time’ have no meaning anymore. Those empty promises have been proffered a thousand times and I understand that you just don’t believe it.”


So how does the family unit, with all its tip-toeing complexity, cope with a newly sober loved one? We learned in the Family Program that education, understanding, love and hope are all part of the strategy.


7 Things to be aware (and beware) of, if you’re coping with a loved one in early recovery (holidays and beyond…)


  1. You cannot work harder on your loved one’s recovery than they do. You are not the sobriety policeman. Resist the temptation to inspect, demand, test and second guess.
  2. There is no such thing as moderation. The brain of someone with a substance use disorder is changed forever. There is danger in thinking that once a person is in recovery, they might be able to demonstrate self-control over their drug of choice.
  3. Sobriety is simply the first step in a long journey. Understand that addiction is a disease of escape. Your loved one will be a bit “rusty” when it comes to coping with emotional and social functioning.
  4. Sobriety is difficult. Post acute withdrawal (PAW) is a group of symptoms that occurs as a result of abstinence from addictive chemicals. PAW impacts sleep, concentration, coordination, memory and emotional reactions. Respect your loved one’s struggle and try to provide healthy food, a regular schedule and a positive attitude (don’t blame or shame).
  5. Make your boundaries clear. The emotional turmoil your loved one is feeling in early recovery is not an excuse for abusive behavior.
  6. Consider thinking of addiction as an “allergy.” If a family member were deathly allergic to peanut butter, would you have it in your cupboard? Your medicine cabinet? On your table?
  7. Take care of yourself… Get professional support and do what you need to do to get and stay healthy.


recovery family thanksgiving


Thanksgiving is one of those metaphoric moments when we all feel compelled to count our blessings. And a family member in recovery is certainly something and someone to be thankful for. Sometimes the enormity of the task overwhelms, but when you get past the fear and uncertainty, accept the new frontier, the rewards are bountiful. And whether you are looking through the eyes of the person in recovery or one who supports the effort, the message is clear:


Thank you for a life renewed.


Thank you for a family restored…


and Happy Thanksgiving


Hope is part of the strategy… Lynnel Brewster





Marilyn Spiller is a writer, sober coach, recovery advocate, and student of the world. (She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing). Seven years sober herself, she penned one of the first sobriety blogs, "Waking Up the Ghost" in 2013. The blog garnered an international following, allowing Marilyn to communicate with thousands of folks in all stages of recovery. Marilyn is Sanford's Director of Marketing and serves as Editor-In-Chief for the Sanford online magazine, "Excursions". She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction.