Consider a time in your life when you’ve admitted to yourself that you indeed have a problem. How did that realisation feel?
Perhaps you were relieved, overwhelmed, terrified, or calm. Perhaps your private admission was a fleeting one before returning to your previous state of denial- “She’ll be right- yeah, nah, all good.”
Change is a process and not a straight trajectory. The family want their loved one to CHANGE now!! But what does this actually look like?
Understanding change at a basic level may help you to strengthen your relationship with your loved one and protect you both when change seems to stop or even go backwards.
Let’s have a look at an established model of change
The Stages of Change Model
(Prochaska and Di Clemente, 1994)
I encourage you to reflect on a change that you have made or are trying to implement in your life and consider these 6 stages:
What problem? I don’t have a problem. Every one of us has had cause to deny some problem at some point in our lives, to entertain those tiny thoughts that sneak unbidden into our minds. “Eerrm the dryer must have shrunk my jeans…and skirt and top,” Right?!
If you recognise your loved one is in this stage your attempts to discuss their use, or offer advice or support, will likely be meet with defensiveness. This can be really frustrating for you and often results in a lot of miscommunication, and a distancing of your relationship with them. Accepting that your loved one is pre contemplative does not mean that as a family you roll over and ignore the problem.
In this stage you can help highlight any notions they may decide to communicate with you that their life is not how they want or need it to be. Focus on your health and wellbeing. Remember if you are unwell you are unlikely to be able to support your loved one when they are ready for change.
Ambivalence is the keyword associated with this stage- “hmmm maybe I do have a problem but last weekend was fun!”
Your loved one selectively edits or replaces the negative consequences of their substance use and focuses instead on fond memories of using. The fear of acknowledging that their substance use has become problematic often results in their thinking returning to the safety of the pre-contemplative state- “Yeah nah, all good.”
In this stage, your loved one may be more open to discussing the problems associated with their use as they are beginning to recognise them. Remember that they will likely also spend a great deal of time justifying their continued use and you will not understand all of these. Your work here is to pay attention to this growing ambivalence and simply begin to reflect this back to them- be their mirror. “I hear that you really enjoy using with your friends and that you are getting tired of owing money.”
Change occurs when the fear of staying the same outweighs the fear of change. In this stage your loved one has gained some clarity on the negative effects of their use and future consequences of continued use. “I have got to get this sorted, I can’t carry on- but how?”
While your loved one may begin to investigate ways to change, they often have no definite plan. One day they might be motivated towards this goal and the next back in contemplation. This is a stage of small steps. Perhaps they have googled AA groups or spoken to a friend in recovery.
In this stage, you can encourage the movement by researching different support options and offering them as options to your loved one. Remember recovery is different for everyone so what has worked for others may not be the same pathway for your loved one.
Lights, camera, action- well not quite. This stage I like to refer to as walking the walk and talking the talk- it’s about congruence. Your loved one will be overtly making attempts to change. This may include deleting using friends from their contacts, attending support groups, or getting back to an exercise regime. Even eating better can be seen as an attempt to change.
For you, your focus is to cheerlead your loved one’s attempts at change. This may have a positive result for you too, as when we focus on the positivity of what is going well we also begin to feel inspired. Remember that these changes may be only small but if encouraged, they can grow.
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Socrates
Your loved one will have a good period of abstinence under their belt and be employing the skills and support they developed in the action stage. They will be focusing on their recovery as if it’s their full-time job – this takes a lot of energy. Also, the fear of lapse is ever present for both you and your loved one. High-risk situations will inevitably occur challenging all of you. These are opportunities for skills to be put into action.
The importance of this stage is to not become complacent with the changes you’ve both made. Remember positive reinforcement encourages change – the benefits of change must outweigh the costs. Hopefully, you’re able to begin enjoying the benefits of the changes you’ve made and be able to reflect on how far you’ve both come.
Eek!! Yes, this stage, unfortunately, is mostly unavoidable. As much as we all wish it wasn’t so, change almost always includes setbacks. While your loved one has learned new strategies and alternatives to use, these were not enough at the time when they picked back up.
Again, reflect on the changes that you have made throughout your own life. Did those changes run smoothly, was your success a linear process, or did you in fact experience setbacks on your path to cementing change? My guess is you experienced the ups and downs of two steps forward, one step back. Making difficult changes is often referred to as pain assisted learning! Being realistic and prepared for this possibility as a family member acts as an anxiety preventative. Lapses don’t have to be viewed through an all or nothing lens, they are part of the growing pains of change and shouldn’t result in panic.
Lapses provide opportunities to learn from and are to be reflected upon in detail. We know that lapses don’t just happen- there are always reasons. Lapses provide clues towards finding and rebuilding a healthier life and returning to recovery with increased insight and skills.
When a client comes to me and discloses that they’ve lapsed we pull the incident apart. We look into all areas of their life, and we ask what has been out of balance and may have contributed to their lapse. We then work out a plan to reduce the likelihood of further lapses in the future.
You can support your loved one and yourself by remembering that a lapse does not equal a complete return to past levels of use and behavior. NOT ALL IS LOST!
Understanding that change requires practice and patience and that it is a learning process will prevent you and your loved one a lot of distress. Don’t loose sight of the positive changes you and your loved one have achieved.
A few last points:
- Do not compare and despair: everyone changes at a different pace and as frustrating as this is it is important to respond to where your loved one is in the change process, not where you think they should be.
- Change is a process, not a straight line: Change is a process often involving two steps forward one step back.
- Change can feel worse for both of you before it gets better: As your loved one adjusts to being substance free they may become cranky, irritable and difficult for you to be around. This is a temporary state, and as difficult as these teething pains of early recovery are for you both, this is ultimately a positive adjustment period of re-learning how to experience life and all its fullness, without the filter of substance.
- Joy increase it!! Research highlights the importance of building a happy life as paramount in reducing substance use. Consider joyful activities you and your loved one can do together or how you can support them to engage in something they want to do. And do something joyful for yourself as well. If you are attempting to live your best life you are modeling to your loved one health and happiness and will be able to support them when they need you.
As always I hope the above has been helpful or interesting, even if for a moment you felt positively different about your situation