His Early Recovery Is Triggering Me
Her loved one has been abstinent from substance use for weeks. With steady recovery inputs, including a medication, he is doing better. However, he recently adopted a deeply confrontational stance and has shifted to some alternative addictive behaviors. Our AlliesinRecovery.net member, feeling hurt and lost, wonders how to address these new challenges. Laurie MacDougall uses some examples from her son’s recovery journey to help paint a picture of more successful interactions that can let some of the tension out of the situation. Read this blog post for some CRAFT-informed ways to handle triggers, boundaries, and power struggles.
“For several weeks now, my loved one does not drink and benefits a lot from the Campral, he says. It makes it a lot less hard to stay sober. So that’s very positive. We see each other every weekend and more often. He goes to therapy and is on a waiting list for a much more intensive therapy in about 6 months. So, he takes it seriously not to use. I do my best to live a healthy and happy life to reward both him and myself in our relationship.
There are some things that I find difficult in this moment. The first one: he does not have much patience with me when doing something wrong (clumsy) in his eyes. He will raise his voice and sound bossy and resentful, a narcissist trait. I don’t know how to react – it triggers my immediate hurt and angry response. It makes me very unhappy, and it surprises me every time he does this and I’m afraid he will not change. I often disengage and go for a walk, but often I don’t feel like taking a walk and feel like a fool to be outside when I would rather be in the house, but send myself away […]”
Wow! I have to say you and your partner really have some positives to report. It sounds like he is dedicated to his recovery; seeing a therapist, waitlisted for more intensive therapy and taking his prescribed medicine. Taking care of yourself is also incredibly positive, given how difficult it is when you’re in the midst of chaos.
Your partner is early in his recovery and the behavior you describe in your post is something I hear over and over again from so many families who I work with. I can also share that my son exhibited much of the same behavior. Being confrontational, irritable, and short tempered for a while (and not a short while either), came with protecting his territory. Unfortunately, we are not usually prepared for this type of behavior and often get thrown off guard.
Noticing your own feelings is a good first step
Something positive that you shared with us is your recognition of your own feelings of hurt and anger and of your being triggered into a response. As soon as you have these feelings, would you be able to give yourself a moment to relax? Maybe take a deep breath and start to have an internal conversation? This small but critical step can help you move forward in this process. Even if you snap at first, you can always back it up and start again.
You talk about disengaging and going for a walk. I suspect that maybe you were not able to sufficiently express how you are feeling. Do you feel as if you are relinquishing power when you are the one to leave and not him?
How to end a power struggle
It may be turning into a power struggle that neither party is aware of. One of the best ways to end a power struggle is to not give it any power.
Here our some action items that might let some steam out of the situation:
- modeling how to calm down in a tense moment,
- labeling how you feel,
- alleviating any feelings of abandonment with a promise to return, and
- addressing the subject later, might let some steam out of things.
It might sound something like this:
“I see that what just happened upset you. This situation is tense, and I need to calm myself down. I am going for a walk and would like to address this when I come back.”
“I know I struggle with (insert whatever he finds your fault), I can see that this angers you. I am going to go to the other room and meditate for a moment, that’s how I calm myself. Could we address this in a few minutes?”
He may be surprised at first and not react the way you would expect. But anticipating his response without, as a good friend once said to me, “being married to it,” can help prepare you even further into the conversation. Maybe he won’t want to address it later and will just want to drop it, then it becomes something like this:
“I hear you; I just need some time to take a break and take care of me.”
Boundaries are laid down not to define the other person’s behavior, only our own.
Remember, your leaving the situation = setting down a boundary. It is NOT you relinquishing power. It’s setting up your limits and letting him know that you’re not going to accept his negative behavior. You are not trying to change him, but you’re also not there to be his target. You’ll return when things are better.
You will become empowered by not letting him trigger you emotionally. Even if he is explosive and irritable, you are in control (or at least you’re able to calm down and manage your emotions). You are teaching him how to treat you.
Replacing one addictive behavior with another
The second issue you are facing is your partner playing games on his phone. It is triggering you back into worry and stress. Anyone who attends 12-step, other recovery meetings, or treatment groups could tell you stories of people chain smoking cigarettes, drinking large amounts of coffee, overeating sugary foods, etc… It is very common, especially with individuals in early recovery. I do hear the same stories with families that I work with: obsessive video game playing, weight gain, using other substances as a substitute, the list goes on… What is concerning for you is that the history of the link between the drinking and the poker game is a trigger for you.
What I learned on my journey to healing from my son’s substance use disorder
- It is crucial to work on the most important issue before moving onto something else.
In other words, staying focused on my loved one’s accomplishments with his recovery and not getting distracted by other things was most important. In your case, alcohol is most destructive. Reinforcing any success you see should be the goal for now. The gaming may be something your partner is using right now to distract his thoughts (it also sounds like it’s starting to be a power struggle here as well).
- The best way to end a power struggle is to not give it power.
In your case, (and I could be wrong of course) it sounds like your loved one might be testing you by continuing to play the game around you, knowing it irritates you. My son would often do things like this to me. He would come into the room with the goal of picking an argument with me. Come to think of it, he still does it from time to time. I learned that one of the best responses was to stay as calm as I could and respond with short statements like, “huh,” with a head shake for “yes” or “sounds interesting…”. Instead of disengaging and going into another room and playing the guitar or getting out of bed when you would like to relax for a moment, could you just ask him to turn the sound off of his phone? It could sound something like:
“Would it be possible to just turn the sound off on the phone so you can continue to play and I can watch tv?”
“I’m not a morning person and need a moment to relax before getting out of bed. Would you mind putting your phone on silent?”
Both of the statements indirectly say, “see, I am not going to try and stop you from playing, I am not going to nag, I am also not relinquishing what I would like to do in the moment.”
He might be pleasantly surprised that you aren’t trying to convince him to stop playing. Just another chance to show him you are letting him determine his path to recovery.
- My feelings of angst and anxiety are mine to work on.
My son’s focus is his recovery, and my focus is my recovery.
- If I want my boundaries to be respected, I have to respect others’ boundaries first.
It took me a while to learn this, but when my loved one would say things like, “Stop trying to control me!”, “Leave me alone”, “I got this”, or “Don’t nag and stay out of it” I often did not listen to what he was saying to me. Then I realized, these were his boundaries. Now I try to stop and recognize when he is setting his limits. I have to work really hard at not putting in my 2 cents. And I mean really hard because it is so difficult, being his mom, to stay out of his business!
I found that when I backed down, I was actually able to capitalize on reinforcing positive behavior. It might sound something like: “I am sorry, I realize I am interfering again. I love you and I know you are fully capable of taking care of things.”
- You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.
You can give your loved one opportunities to do other activities than playing his game but you cannot make him take you up on it. You could have some bikes ready and ask him on a bike ride. Or tell him you were looking forward to going for a hike somewhere and were wondering if he wanted to go with you. If his answer is “no” for now, that’s okay, let it go. It may be “no” for quite a while.
I know my loved one struggled to do things outside of his own room/small world for a long time and I often hear the same thing from other families. I learned to just keep offering with no expectations. When he takes me up on it great, it’s a win. When he doesn’t then he doesn’t, I let it go.
- Another way to redirect energy is to give a task.
For example, if your partner keeps waking you up by playing his game, ask him the night before to head to the store when he first gets up to get some milk. Or to do some chore. He may say no (he may not be ready for that) and if he does, let it go again. But keep trying occasionally. Doing this gives a person purpose, allows them to be able to contribute, and sends the message that you know they are capable of accomplishing more.
I hope this helps. Know that almost all families experience something similar when their loved one is in early recovery. You are not alone. Please keep us updated. Wishing the best for you and your loved one!