How long does my loved one need to recover before I can “relax” and trust them?

Posted on August 6, 2023 View all news

How does a family respond to a loved one with destructive behaviors, such as using marijuana or any drug? Cornerstone Team Counseling addresses these tough recovery questions from different perspectives. The following answers and opinions are from clinical staff, youth in recovery, and parents and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Every Brain Matters community. We encourage people to take what they like and make decisions that benefit their families. We provide a glossary of recovery terms below.

To learn more, please visit our family recovery resources here and find support meetings here.

How long does my loved one need to recover before I can “relax” and trust them?

Perspective from Clinical Staff: The first five years are considered early recovery. But I pay much more attention to action and behavior than the length of sobriety.

These are all things I look at when asking myself if I can “trust” someone in early recovery.

  • Do their actions match their words?
  • Do they attend a lot of meetings?
  • Do they stick with winners?
  • Do they work with a sponsor?
  • Do they sponsor others? 
  • Chair meetings? 
  • Reach out to others?  

Perspective from Clinical Staff: There is a world of difference between abstaining from drugs and alcohol and then actively working an honest recovery program. The focus should be on the quality of their sobriety. The length of time being sober does not guarantee that sustainable recovery will be sustainable. 

I recommend paying attention to your loved one’s behaviors and actions and getting in the habit of trusting but verifying their behavior. When they achieve five years of working a consistent program, then you can “relax.”

Perspective from a Parent:  A big piece of the “relax” part also started coming to me when I began to realize the Promises (of working the 12 steps) were coming true in my own life, and my focus mostly became doing the next right things and leaving the results to God.

The Promises: From The Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous) pages 83-84

“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. 

  1. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
  2. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
  3. We will comprehend the word serenity
  4. We will know peace.
  5. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience will benefit others. 
  6. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
  7. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
  8. Self-seeking will slip away.
  9. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
  10. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.
  11. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 
  12. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. 

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.”

Perspective from Teen: The big book of AA states that the disease of addiction is cunning, baffling, and powerful. Our disease can sneak up on us no matter how long we have been sober. There’s no known cure. The things that strengthen our disease is recovery, God, meetings, step work, sponsorship, honesty, etc. 

My best friend, that I got sober with, went back out after having 2 years of sobriety. I know she went back out for a couple of reasons. For one, I wasn’t always a very good friend; I was pretty enabling and codependent with her, which held her back from growing. Two, she had very codependent parents, which definitely held her back from growing. And three, she was becoming less and less honest towards the end of her recovery, going to meetings less, not sticking with her winners, etc. 

Now to answer the question, how can you “relax”? Work your program, work your steps, and work with your sponsor. Your teen’s best chance at recovering and staying sober is if they have parents who are working a program. When your teen is not doing well in their recovery or is just “in a slump,” which will happen by the way, you will intuitively know how to handle the situation when it comes up because you’re working the steps. When you’re working your program, “relaxation” is a byproduct of that. 

Alumni Teen: It doesn’t have so much to do with sobriety time. It’s ALL about what are your teen’s actions are reflecting. Are they showing love, being of service, and growing by attending meetings, sponsoring, sticking with winners, hosting, and prioritizing step-work parties? Or are they dishonest through omission, looking for excuses to miss meetings and fellowshipping outside of recovery hours, and gravitating towards old friends or non-winners? 

More than anything, genuine Relationships AND Commitments will keep people around. Strong relationships with people who will push them to grow, commitments to sponsor/sponsees and family night, being committed to satellite, following a meeting schedule 100% and developing a home group, hosting others in the program, and so on. When someone is ACTUALLY involved in the group, I can trust them but still need to leave the outcome up to God and focus on my own peace.

A lifestyle set up to encourage growth and selflessness on a daily basis will result in a successful recovery.

See the parent story below for more experience, strength, and hope.

I am the firstborn of a family of 3 boys and 1 girl. I was raised in a “traditional home” where my father worked long hours, and my mom stayed home and raised the four of us. I was sickly as a small child and suffered from asthma and many respiratory illnesses through childhood. I remember being carried down the stairs by a policeman in the first grade to a waiting ambulance. I spent the next month in the hospital in an oxygen tent. It seemed that often the threat of having difficulty breathing hung over me. I remember many nights of having an asthma attack and standing in the dark, not wanting to wake anyone – alone with my struggling breath, I would wait out the attack. Going through these attacks alone for whatever reason seemed to be a testament to the strength in my mind as a young child. I later in high school joined the cross-country running team, and while I spent most of the first season sick with bronchitis, running seems to have “cured” my asthma – “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” 

As firstborn, I was given extra responsibilities and often had to help take care of my brothers and sister. Since I was the oldest, I always had to try things before others. My siblings often became resentful when I was asked to babysit them or as they followed me in school to hear the teachers say, “Oh, you are his brother (or sister)? He is so smart and so well-behaved.” I was a good student, an avid reader of books, a lover of science, and a boy scout who enjoyed the challenge of camping in harsh northern winters with summer gear. I was what I guess I always will be.  

There is no addiction that I know of in my family. My parents would drink socially on occasion but never to excess. There was only one major family issue I had during high school. I would always talk to my mother, but she thought I was talking down to her for some reason. My dad told me that if something did not change, I would have to leave the house. His words and my mother’s thoughts of me were painful. Here I was, an A student who never got in trouble and who was seen by others as a very nice person, and they saw me as a totally different person. It took me a long time before I was open with my mother again, and when my son’s mother started to have problems with my son, this memory challenged me: “Will you act like your dad did, or will you take a different path?” 

I often drank excessively in college, but it never interfered with my schoolwork. Drinking was regulated to Friday and Saturday nights and never during the week. Drinking seemed to be a big part of how people socialize in college. I never tried cigarettes because I saw how hard it was for my mom to stop smoking and because of my asthma. I also never tried marijuana or any other drugs. In my mind, these were not what I considered to be socially acceptable. The people who did smoke marijuana seemed to lack initiative. 

I met my son’s mother after graduate school and after I had started working for Mobil Oil. She was very close to her family – especially her mother. She seemed a little afraid of her dad. We had been married for several years, and after several years of trying to get pregnant, we started fertility treatments. All these failed, and eventually, we discovered she could never have a child. She was devastated. I was sad but more accepting that we might have to take a different path. It took several years, but I convinced her that we should try adoption. After one failed attempt, we supported a birth mother and got “the boy” when he was two days old. My son’s mother became a stay-at-home mom and was very happy. This happiness seemed short-lived because she seemed to have trouble managing our son at a very early age. I would come home to reports of fights over trivial things. And so began the journey of many counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. It was probably also the beginning of the end of our relationship because, in almost all cases, he was fine with me but not with her. She later told me that she suspected that I was undermining her authority.

In 2010 just after Christmas, she told me she wanted a divorce. She said I was a terrible person, and to begin with, I thought she must be right since why else would she want to end our marriage and rip apart our little family? It was not until later that I found out she had reconnected with her first boyfriend from high school. This is some 30 years later. He had already divorced his wife. She felt that her relationship with our son would suddenly be fine with me out of the picture. What happened is that their fights became worse, and the counselor recommended he stay with me full-time. While I never signed up to be a “part-time” dad, being a full-time dad while working was not easy, and it was made difficult because our son started to use drugs soon after his mother said she wanted a divorce and because he hated me. He hated me because his mother had planted the seed that the divorce was my fault and not hers. His hatred continued for years. For me personally, this was the old “one-two” punch. The divorce came with a tremendous sense of loss and grief because I still loved her, and my son, who had been incredibly close to me and sought me out for counsel all the time, now saw me as someone he disliked and blamed for his loss of a sense of family. He and I struggled on. Me trying to recreate a family atmosphere and normalcy. He pointed out how things were not better. My world seemed to close in and become one of dealing with my son when he acted out at home and did poorly at school while working full time.  

And then the drugs surfaced. I caught him the first-time smoking marijuana by the window in one of the bathrooms when he had a friend over. I remember telling him never to do that again and expecting him to comply. Then life became one of those running sagas that seemed more bizarre. I believed he was doing something wrong but was not sure, and then I knew he was doing something wrong and not getting him to stop. My life descended into periods of relative calm with cycles of failing grades, evident drug use, and violence or intimidation when he would not get his way. I spent these first years of addiction hoping to find the right medications so he would stop self-medicating and get over his mother’s loss. I was truly miserable, afraid, and isolated. 

Of course, things did not improve. He was still angry, messing up in school, and acting out. A friend told me about an APG program. I started going to some of the meetings and going to Al-Anon as well. My son had gotten some minor charges, and I got the DA office to write that he had to attend a “program .”I took him to meet Kayli and left it up to him whether he went into one of two APG programs. I got a sponsor at this first recovery program and started working on the steps. At the time, this APG did not have a strong parent network, and I was the only one with a sponsor, but it seemed fitting. After working a few steps, I began to see everything differently. Before starting The Steps, I had felt that what my son was going through had to be mostly my fault and his mother’s. The error of this is that it gives my son an excuse for his behavior. While I worked my program, it didn’t take him long to mess up in the APG, and they recommended I put him inpatient program. I got him there after one failed trip where he bailed out of the car, and I had to call the police and report him a runaway. 

Once he got back into the APG after inpatient, he seemed to be doing well for a long time. Then he got caught getting high and had to leave. By this time, I felt isolated. Some friendships had survived the divorce, but none knew what I was going through. I went into what I thought of as “zone” defense. I may be unable to stop his drug use, but the home must be safe. He was nearly 18 when he attacked me after one of his friends got arrested when I caught him, and another boy passed out in my driveway and called the police. This time, and there had been many before, the police arrested him and charged him with assault. From jail, he begged me to bail him out. I did nothing until he promised to go into Cornerstone. While in Cornerstone, he stayed with host families, and I focused on working on my program and my relationship with my new wife-to-be. He seemed to make some real progress while with host families and in the outpatient program.  

And so did I. I worked my steps and worked on home rules. I also changed the focus from my son to myself and addressed my fear of living a life without purpose. I redoubled my efforts in scuba diving for those with disabilities and my EMS studies and volunteerism. I returned to helping in Boy Scouts. I spent time with my new wife. I was happy again. 

After two host families and breaking some small rules, my son went to live in a sober living house while still going to OP. He had personality issues with those in Cornerstone and decided to leave Cornerstone. I told him he could not come home and provided no support. He went to live with the family of one of his using buddies, which only lasted a few months. He begged to come home. As a parent with a “post Cornerstone” child, I faced the dilemma of what you do. I said he could come home if he obeyed the house rules. He seemed to. Not long after, he left to live in another city to get away from all his user bodies. It took some time, but he is now mostly successful in this. 

Cornerstone and Al-anon have taught me that counselors, relatives, winners, and friends may give you advice, but you, as a parent, know your addicted child the best, and no one can be a parent for you. While you know your child best, you still must not be guided by fear and love. You need to leverage your program tools and work with your higher power on the right next thing to do. There is always hope if you have a relationship with your child. You cannot control what an addict does, even if they are your child, but you can be an enabler of recovery if you keep the lines of communication open and show that you care. If I had expected perfection, there would have been no progress. There probably would be no relationship if I got annoyed or angry with every slip or relapse. 

Looking back at my time in Cornerstone, I cherish the group’s fellowship. Isolation has become a thing of the past. Knowing that people see your flaws but still love you is wonderful. I know I am better and stronger in working the steps with my sponsor and higher power. Having a sponsor who has guided my journey has been wonderful, and it is truly a gift to sponsor others. I greatly enjoyed the times I led the topic in meetings. While they may say you should not “think” about your share, “they” must be an extrovert because this introvert needs time to think and connect with my feelings. Leading topics gave me time to think and become vulnerable.  

And this just illustrates that each journey is one’s own. My recovery journey has been one of a transformation from one living in fear to one of hope. The journey is far from over.

Glossary of terms:

Addict: An old term used to describe a person with a substance use disorder that is not currently socially accepted anymore.

Al-Anon: A twelve-step organization that provides support and hope for families affected by another person’s marijuana use.

APG: Alternative Peer Groups are groups designed to address the emotional, psychological, spiritual, and social needs of teens struggling with substance use disorders.

Awakening: A term used after Completion of the 12 steps and the requirements of the Cornerstone community. Like a graduation, but it’s viewed as a “spiritual awakening.”

Climbers: an interactive educational group for family members to bring issues, questions or concerns, and receive direct feedback from a counselor and other family members. As well as learn tools of recovery to help you and your family. The Every Brain Matters community offers a Climbers meeting every Wednesday.

Destructive Behaviors: Self-destructive behavior is when you do something that’s sure to cause self-harm, whether it’s emotional or physical. Some self-destructive behavior is more obvious, such as: attempting suicide. binge eating. compulsive activities like gambling, using harmful drugs, gaming, or shopping.

IOP (Intensive Outpatient Therapy): treatment programs used to address addictions, depression, eating disorders, or other dependencies that do not require detoxification or round-the-clock supervision.

Mar-Anon Family Groups: A twelve-step organization that provides support and hope for families affected by another person’s marijuana use.

Parent-Driven Recovery: Tools that Work is a must-read for parents of substance-abusing teens. You’ll learn how to maneuver through the chaos to create a harmonious family life. Even if your teen is not ready or willing to change, there is help and hope.

Recovery: A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength. A healing process.

Shots: A term used in the recovery community called Cornerstone Team Counseling. It’s a customized list of rules and consequences each family makes for their homes. To learn more, attend the Every Brain Matters Climbers meeting on Wednesday evenings at 7 pm Central time. A list of our meetings is at this link.

SO: Stands for Significant Others, a term sometimes used when graduating from an IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) after making amends to our “significant others”, or people we have harmed.

Sponsor: A peer who guides another person through the 12-steps.

Winners listA list of peers who are working an honest active recovery program.

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