For the first post of the new year I would like to address "change". This is a time when people often make New Year's resolutions to change behaviors they dislike. It is important to realize the effects those changes may have on your family interactions.
Some families are relieved and happy and welcome the change. Though the alcoholic will have to work long and hard to earn back the trust their alcoholism has cost them, the family is willing to give them the chance to do this. Through hard work, sobriety and time their families will slowly reach out to them more, offer them more opportunities for participation and responsibility and eventually allow them to resume their position as a cherished - and trusted- member of the family. Other families may have a very different reaction.
Take for instance Javier*. He worked long and hard to get sober. He got a good job and kept it. He took responsibility for helping his ex-wife raise their children. He showed up to help with his aging parents. He stopped driving drunk and getting into fights. He was responsible and reliable. He made himself physically and emotionally available to his family. Yet they refused to allow him to be sober. They actively worked to sabotage him (offering him drinks, questioning his manhood for not being able to "hold his liquor", criticizing the "losers" at his support group, etc.) They kept referring to him in terms of his past, alcoholic, behaviors and treated him with open derision. They continued to refer to his alcoholic behavior and would not let him leave it behind. They refused to forgive him or give him a chance to restore the family's trust and respect. They seemed heavily invested in keeping him an alcoholic. Why?
Why would any family want their son to be an alcoholic? If the rest of the family are drinkers they might fear one of their member becoming sober. This might require that they look at their own behavior. In fact, if they have any undesirable behavior (sexual abuse, infidelity, domestic violence, child abuse, eating disorders, etc.) they may not want Javier to become sober. An openly drunken member of the family makes and easy target. The family can hide behind Javier, their own dysfunction overshadowed by his obvious alcoholism.
They may also fear change. If Javier changes his behavior, they might have to examine their own. It upsets the status quo. It changes the norm. And people dislike and fear change.
Javier's sobriety may also upset the balance of power. If he has a sibling who is the "Hero" of the family - smart, successful, together and always in control - that person's role may be challenged if Javier becomes a fully functional and responsible adult. That person may also not be such a Hero if Javier is not being such a screw up. It's easy to look very good next to a drunk. But if Javier is now sober and functional he may be a threat. What if he gets a better job than the Hero? Makes more money? Marries better? Has better behaving children? Buys a better house? Sibling rivalry may rear its head with a vengeance.
Changing family roles can also be a problem. If Javier has always been the family Scapegoat and he suddenly decides to resign his position, this means some other member of the family will have to become the "bad one". No one wants this! They fight mightily to get Javier back into his role.
And everything I have said about Javier's family could also apply to his spouse and his friends. If his spouse has been the "healthy" one, Javier's sobriety could jeopardize her position in the family. She may have had sole responsibility for the children, but she also had complete control over them. If Javier walks back into the family sober, she may have to consult with him before making decisions. The children may start looking up to him as much as they do to her. She will lose some of her ultimate power. She will have to share their love and respect with Javier. If she is heavily locked into a "savior" role, what does she do when their is no one to save? Javier's changes will have profound changes on her and their children. Some of these changes may not be as welcomed as Javier had expected.
If you are the one changing, it is important to be aware of this and be prepared for it. It is also important to realize that your family's behaviors usually come from fear. Fear of change. Fear of exposure. Fear of rejection. Fear of failure. Fear of losing status. Fear of losing power. Does that mean Javier should tolerate his family treating his this way? No. If he's being sabotaged and derided he may point this out to his family and hope they are willing to own it. If they don't, he may have to limit his interactions with his family. But it will help his healing if he can realize that his family's motivations are self preservation rather than cruelty or lack of love. Ideally, their love for him will outweigh their dysfunction, but life is rarely ideal.
Does this mean you shouldn't bother making changes? NO! Improving yourself will make you happpier, healthier and more whole. It will allow you to enjoy your life more. You'll feel more in control of yourself and your choices. You'll improve not only your self esteem, but your relationships with other healthy people.
It's just important to realize how your changes may affect the unhealthy people in your life so you can be prepared and have a backup plan. Be aware of who truly supports you and who subtly sabotages you. Surround yourself with the people who support your healthier choices and don't sabotage your efforts. That may be one of the most important changes you make.
*Client vignettes are composites to protect client confidentiality.