Recovery Insights on the Gift and Challenge of Loving Family

This past summer, I’ve been able to return home for weddings on three separate occasions. And my parents came out to visit me after one of the weddings, too. So, despite being a few states away, I’ve gotten to see my parents quite a bit this past summer.

One of my visits was deeply nurturing, which might be a strange way to put it. However, being so far away from the tribe of people I call my family—which includes immediate family, extended family, friends, and acquaintances—is exhausting, to put it bluntly. The experience of living far away from home for an extended period of time has made the truism “distance makes the heart grow fonder” very real to me. It’s nice to be with people who just accept you for who you are.     

However, during one of the visits with my family I was having a terrible time due to a combination of things both in and out of my control that were bothering me. My brother, noticing my poor mood, asked me an interesting question: “Why do you even come home if you don’t seem to enjoy the company of Mom and Dad?” Siblings seem to know how to get to the root of things. 

My answer is complex. 

12-Step Groups Provided Support

Some days I miss my family deeply and think of them fondly. Other days I can’t stand them. My mood can fluctuate between positive and negative states, whether I’m with them or hundreds of miles away. You can’t replace family—they’re a constant. And my faith beckons me to keep trying to improve our relationship.

However, I’m slowly getting better at managing this. I don’t feel so incapable of being both my own unique person and a member of my family. I’m better able to set boundaries, though, still not perfectly. I also don’t have the need to feel shame when I’m upset with my parents. I attribute this to my time in 12-step groups and group therapy. One of the most healing things about being part of a group is hearing others say “me too” or “I understand.” I’ve received so much wisdom about relating to family while in 12-step meetings.

I remember when I first started attending 12-step meetings and I was challenged to give my dad a call. It might sound strange but I was so nervous. I was going to be vulnerable and I feared he might reject me and say “no.” I sat on the couch for about an hour wondering if I should do it. I finally mustered up the courage and called to ask him to go out to breakfast with me. Now, five years later, I wouldn’t exactly call my dad a best friend, but I’m able to hold a conversation with him. And I look forward to opportunities to grow our relationship.

Therapists Helped Me Understand My Family Dynamics

It was deeply revelatory to me to begin my journey of healing five years ago. Besides hearing individual recovery stories, I probably learned the most about families and the dysfunction that they can cause (and just how prevalent it is).

One of the most beneficial exercises that I’ve done on my journey was to draw stick figure diagrams of my emotional relationship with my family. One of my therapists, upon our first meeting, had me do the “homework” of drawing out different scenarios. It sounds silly but it was actually very powerful. 

One of the scenarios was what I want my family to look like. I drew my mom and dad holding hands and, below them, me and my siblings holding hands. To my shock, my therapist said, “That’s actually the perfect explanation of what a psychologically healthy family should look like.”

At that point in my journey, I felt completely lost and broken. I hadn’t gone to inpatient rehab yet. I hadn’t read many psychology books. I was kind of running on the whims of what I had learned from the Twelve Steps. So to hear him say that my intuition was on point made me feel good and has stuck with me.

What I think is beautiful is that even in my brokenness I still contained the seeds of renewal. I intuitively understood what our family should look like. I believe in many ways that the pain we experience from our families isn’t actually the emotional damage inflicted. It’s the distance between how good our relationship could and ought to be, and the dismal state it may be in now. Maybe I just had a lucky guess with my drawing, or perhaps God has implanted within our hearts the structure of what healthy bonding looks and feels like.

Another helpful experience occurred when I was at inpatient rehab. This particular facility invited families to come down for a weekend. The idea is that addiction and emotional pain are not isolated events but are connected to our families. The only way to truly heal is to heal everyone involved.

During this time, we learned about and completed a histogram, which is a graph about one’s family and history of family addiction extending over many generations. It helped me piece together the “secrets” of our family and helped me see my personal struggles in a different light.

Pulling it All Together

To be honest, I believe that it would deeply benefit both of my parents to work the Twelve Steps and go to inpatient rehab themselves, which is why my answer to my brother’s question is complex. It’s hard for me to be happy with my parents when they won’t try to resolve their own issues. This is particularly difficult for me because they are my parents, not my siblings or peers. It’s very sad to me to feel as if I have done more to improve myself than they have. I feel that I should be looking to them for help and not the other way around.

However, as I’ve attended 12-step meetings I’ve been able to process this a little more. I realize that virtually everyone struggles with their family and that loving them offers yet another path to holiness.

Quarter Joe is a lifelong Catholic and has been in recovery for pornography addiction for nearly three years. He is passionate about the spiritual path of the 12-step model and the power of Jesus in the Eucharist in bringing healing and transformation.