Being the only person I know of on both sides of my family who considers themselves in recovery from something can be lonely or frustrating at times, but it has helped me to look at the positives of many situations or turn negative feelings into positive actions, and has probably helped me to be a better social worker. Fortunately, I can have fairly open conversations with my mom and sister about the extent of substance use disorder in our family, but outside of that, it’s not something that really gets talked about. The family culture around this is more focused on secrets, looking in the other direction, and downplaying, which is probably not uncommon. I’m staying anonymous with this article because, while I’m fairly open about my own stuff, my family isn’t, so I want to honor their privacy. To stay in the spirit of loving the person and hating the disease, I’m going to add a few of the best things I know about the people I mention.
If I had to guess, I would say about a third of my mom’s family has substance use disorder (and there is plenty of depression, too). I do know that my grandpa (who was a veteran, teacher, walked the dog 4 miles a day until he was at least 75, and helped my grandma dry the dishes every day until 2 days before he passed away) quit drinking suddenly when he got a bleeding ulcer and was vomiting blood. It doesn’t sound like this was talked about, and no treatment or programs were involved. I know that several years ago, my aunt (who has probably read a few libraries’ worth of books, is an activist, proud grandma, and expert dog mom) stopped practicing law and stopped driving for reasons we aren’t sure of, but suspect involve alcohol. One of our cousins (who worked with children with special needs and rescued stray animals) passed away a few years ago from what had to have been an overdose. It was described in a flowery, medical way which I felt like was a huge lie (now I have a little more appreciation and compassion that her family can describe it however they want). Her brother spoke at the memorial and laughed about how much she liked partying when they were younger and how, 20 years earlier when she was in high school, she would bring a bucket into the basement at her parents’ house so that she could stay downstairs all weekend with everyone and not even have to go upstairs to use the bathroom. This was treated as totally normal and I chose to leave after the memorial service because I was too angry to go to lunch with everyone, and was glad that my parents mentioned later that they had been shocked by this story- at least there was some sort of limit to what they could pretend about.
Having gone to a few hundred Al-Anon meetings myself (haha), I knew on some level that I could only control my own response to what I viewed as a really big lie, so I talked to friends who would understand, and went to Washington, D.C. to advocate for policy changes as part of handling my anger about this. I can also use this type of situation as motivation to keep my own mental health under control and not start using alcohol again myself, since I’m not that different from the rest of the family and would be in the same type of situations without therapy, medication, quitting drinking, and Al-Anon.
Substance use disorder doesn’t seem as widespread in my dad’s family, but we did know that my uncle (who was really smart, had tons of common sense, was hilarious, and would do fun things with us like sing songs outside under the stars when the power went out) got into an accident because he fell asleep while driving home from the bar- the truck ended up in a lake and he ended up with a broken arm. We also knew that he had stopped driving through Canada to get to Michigan from New York in the last few years of his life. We didn’t know that somewhere along the line, he had somehow lost his driver’s license until after he had passed away.
Hardest for me has been accepting that my dad might not ever want to stop drinking- he has been drinking pretty much every day since I can remember, so more than 25 years. He has said before that he knows he should cut back, but also has told us more than once that he is never going to quit. Now I can accept this, even though it’s depressing to me at times. I remember that I can choose how to handle things- such as remembering if I decide to call him later at night, I don’t know whether or not he will remember the conversation, or that he’s not going anywhere after five on weekdays or noon on the weekends unless someone else is driving. I can also leave their house if things stop being fun and entertaining, and turn annoying. I can remind myself that my dad is a lot of other things too, like great at advice about careers, probably the funniest person I’ve ever met, excellent at his job (he won so many sales competitions that the top managers told him he wasn’t allowed to win anymore because everyone else stopped trying), there for us if we need him, a master organizer, fellow grunge fan, good chef, and lover of Christmas and giving gifts. I think accepting all this was necessary and now I can be hopeful that he still might get into recovery someday, while not having expectations that will lead to me feeling resentful of him and the situation.
From a social work standpoint, having lots of family who could be described as “pre-contemplative” (the first stage of change where someone is not recognizing there is a problem, or where the pros of the behavior outweigh the cons) probably helps me with optimism. Co-workers have told me that I’m good at seeing the positive in situations, and that they admire that I will try with a client as many times as it takes and not give up on the person. And at the same time, seeing clients recover who start off with less support and resources (like a job and place to live) than my dad has, make me hopeful for him. Getting to the point where I usually don’t take work home with me and am usually in a positive mindset about my family definitely involved getting my own help and can still be a challenge at times, but everything seems better using a glass-half-full approach, and I know recovery is possible for everyone.