I love it when my sex addict clients go to family gatherings, even though they sometimes dread it! I tend to view a concentrated exposure to members of your family of origin as an unparalleled growth opportunity.
Here are some of the challenges and some positive ways to respond to the experience.
Challenges to expect when encountering your family of origin
As a recovering addict you are the renegade in the family system. You have already broken the family “rules” by wanting to evolve away from the old damaging roles and dynamics of your early life.
As part of your treatment you have examined the less pleasant aspects of your childhood. You have unearthed some traumatic memories and have come face to face with your own pain and insecurities.
Things to be prepared for:
- You may feel rejected. Others of your family members may not be happy that you have stopped playing your old role in the family; whether it was the peacemaker, the care-taker, the clown or the black sheep. You have redefined who you are and this forces your relatives to either take a different look at themselves or to push back against you and your new found identity.
- You may regress. You may feel drawn into your old ways of relating as a conditioned response to your family members. You may reflexively have feelings of anger, resentment and intimidation in response to the people you knew as a child. In other words, you may temporarily forget that you are not that scared child any more and that you don’t need to react or take the bait any more.
- Sobriety is challenged. Since you cannot always confront family members directly in a party situation (and even if you did they might not respond very amicably) you may feel a sense of unease. You may be trying to contain unpleasant feelings and may therefore feel an urge to engage in your old addictive behavior as a coping mechanism. There is a risk of relapse both in the immediate situation and in the hours and days that follow.
Helpful things to remember
- You are the strong one. Others may see you as the addict, the sick one or the problem child. But you are the one who has moved on and gotten healthier. Family members, unless they have also engaged in self exploration and emotional growth, may still be the same. You will not be appreciated for challenging the status quo that they take for granted. You may feel like an outsider in some ways, a visitor from another world. And yet you need to remember that your own journey is a worthwhile one and that your outsider status is a sign that you have make progress.
- Take a break when you need to. Your family may want to get you to act in the old role by attributing motives, thoughts and feelings to you that you do not have. This in turn can present a test of your recovery. It is hard not to react by behaving in the way that others expect you too, and that comes so easily. It is the hardest time to stay centered. You will need to be sure to make space for yourself to collect your thoughts, to get away and rest or meditate for a bit in order to stay emotionally balanced in your new sense of self.
- Beware of “reunion fantasies.” This is the most common of phenomena. People with dysfunction in their family may move away and forget the problems and the negative aspects of the past. You may feel you have forgiven your family for the way they were. It is common to go into the family encounter wrapped in wishful thinking only to be shocked by the reality that no one has fundamentally changed.
Family holidays are a terrific opening to examine the forces that shaped you, to understand early trauma and to connect with the child within. Hopefully you will maintain your serenity, keep centered in yourself and enjoy the day.