Not knowing how to act around your newly sober family can be daunting, awkward, and confusing. You may have several questions as how you should act and what you might say to your recovering loved one. Can I drink around them? Are they sick? Are they an alcoholic? Will their personality change? There might be an internal struggle to want to help your family member with their addiction, which may inevitably cause tension and stress. What to do and how to do it will be discussed in this article to help your loved one navigate their new journey of sobriety.
The first part is to gain a better understanding of what being an alcoholic means? Being an alcoholic is actually not a moral or character issue. It’s a chemical one and here are the reasons why. The brain is constantly attempting to maintain a normal balance of brain chemicals also called nerurotransmitters. In other words, the brain is always trying to retain a sense of normalcy, also referred to as homeostasis. When alcohol is introduced to the body, it challenges the brain’s effort to maintain homeostasis. Alcohol changes the brain chemistry by affecting the neurotransmitters including dopamine, Seratonin, GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid), and Glutimate. As the alcohol use increases, the brain tries to maintain a balance of these neurotransmitters according to the frequency and amount of alcohol intake. Over time, the brain learns that it does not need to create as many of these brain and it strengthens the dependence of these neurochemicals provided through alcohol use. The more frequently and the greater amount of alcohol consumed, the more the brain may depend on these chemicals.
What happens when the brain does not maintain homeostasis? The fight or flight gland in the brain, called the hypothalamus, becomes desperate and believes that it is in danger if it does not receive the alcohol. This process causes an internal struggle in the person that is trying to stop drinking. The fight or flight gland believes it has to have alcohol to survive, and the conscious, executive decision making part of the brain is trying to resist. This causes irritability, anger, sadness, fear and anxiety to the person who is trying to remain sober.
How do you communicate with your recovering family member? Here are a few suggestions to help your family member who is struggling. Listen, be mindful, and supportive. Specifically this means that you decide if it’s ok to communicate with them about their drinking. Look them in the eyes and be genuine. First ask, “How are you?” If they seem that they want to talk about it, you could say: “I can imagine this process must be difficult and I’m proud of you.” “What if anything can I do to help?” If your family member wants your help, they’ll let you know.
Can you drink in front of them? Be sensitive to what may trigger their alcohol use. If you’re not sure, don’t do it. In the first 60 days of recovery it can be difficult for someone to be around alcohol as the smell of it can be a powerful trigger, as well as the urge to join in the fun. In some occasions, supporting your family member may include sacrificing some of your own plans to help your family member.
Do you try to monitor their drinking? Try not to act as the enforcer of your family member’s recovery. For your family member to succeed, it has to be his or her decision. Give them a chance to be in charge of themselves. There is an old saying that says, “you have to chase your sobriety like you chased the drink.” Your family member has to own their own sobriety. No one can do it for them.
Keep it light and fun. Your family member can benefit from experiencing a fun time without drinking. One of the main triggers to drink is F.O.M.O. – Fear Of Missing Out. This can be a strong trigger that the Hypothalamus gland can use to persuade your family member to drink again.
Your family member is still the same person and going through the necessary process of sobriety. It’s not easy, but if they can get to the other side they will be a stronger and no longer be oppressed by alcohol. They deserve a chance to live a fulfilled and happy life.
Author, Mark Zauss, BC-TMC, LMHC, CCMHC, NBCC
Mark Zauss is a double board certified licensed mental health counselor