Ask the expert: I am an alcoholic and I need to fix my family
I am now sober but it seems my wife and children have got on with life without me
Tell them about your addiction and recovery: children in particular can find this helpful. Photograph: Getty Images
Q I have recently accepted that I am an alcoholic, after 20 years of heavy drinking that took its toll on my marriage and family. I gave up drinking last June. This was after a number of events in the past couple of years including the death of my father, who was an alcoholic who drank until the end.
I finally went to counselling, under pressure from my wife, and this has really helped. However, over Christmas, I have become very aware of the damage I have done to everyone around me.
I was never there for my two teenage sons who now seem really angry with me.
Although my wife wanted me to give up the drink, I don’t know if this has led to an improvement in our relationship; she seems to have got on with her life without me, as have my two boys.
Christmas is not going as well as I expected. I had hoped we would have been much happier as it is my first year off the booze.
I suppose I am being unrealistic but I would love a better relationship with my wife and two sons. I hope I have not left it too late.
A Firstly, I think you are to be congratulated for making the big step of stopping drinking and for being sober for six months. This is no small matter and you are to be commended. I think your story shows that, even after an extended period of addiction, it is possible to make life- changing choices and to transform one’s life. For this reason, your story is one of hope for families in similar situations.
Your story also highlights how you have to be patient with change and how it can take time to heal relationships and to restore trust. As you realise, it is quite likely that your children and wife have lots of negative feelings about your addiction and its impact on them. Frequently, family members cope and get on with daily life when living with a person with an active addiction and only when the addiction stops do they feel able to share their feelings of resentment, anger and upset. In addition, depending on how often they have been let down in the past, they may be understandably slow to trust you, so you will have to be patient.
Continue to commit to your recovery
Probably the most important thing you can do is to continue to commit to your personal recovery. Continue to avail of the supports that helped you overcome your addiction, such as the counselling you attend, and seek out additional supports as you need them, such as group fellowship within the AA or other organisations. Anticipate potential setbacks and be prepared for how you will cope with these.
In addition, try to have a number of positive recovery goals for yourself such as increasing personal health, improving work, making amends in your family as well as making a wider social contribution (for example, giving something back in voluntary work). Positive goals like these will all keep you focused on recovery and healing. Remember, the longer you maintain your personal recovery and keep your life on a positive path, the better the chance of healing within your family.
Accept your children and wife’s feelings
It is important to accept completely that your children and wife feel angry and upset about the addiction. Don’t be defensive about what happened, and encourage them to share their feelings openly and directly to you while you listen patiently. Take responsibility and offer an apology for your actions but don’t expect them to forgive you immediately; you need to give them space to do this in their own time and, to some extent, accept that there might be things that they won’t be able to forgive fully, and may continue to feel angry about.
Communicate positively about what happened
When they are ready, it can be useful to tell them about what happened to you and the story of your addiction and recovery. Children in particular can find this helpful in understanding the past and in not feeling burdened or over-responsible for it. The key is for you to take responsibility for your actions and present the story in a matter-of-fact way. It can be helpful to talk of the hope at the end; you have stopped drinking and now have a chance for healing and repair. Some people in recovery find it useful to write an individual letter of apology to those closest to them, detailing their story and hopes for change going forward. Even if you don’t actually send this, or if you choose to communicate only verbally, writing such individual letters to your wife and children can be of enormous therapeutic benefit.
Realise you are beginning again
Be careful about having too many expectations about how your family relationships should proceed. Be aware that you are actually beginning again with your wife and children. They have their own lives, which they developed while you were addicted, and you need to respect this and give them plenty of space as you move forward. As you start the new year, state your hopes to your family but ask them what they would like. For example, you can say to your wife, that you would love to become closer to her in the new year and spend more time together, but then ask her what she wants and be prepared to go at her pace rather than yours.
In reading your email, it is clear that you show good awareness and sensitivity to the needs of your family. I don’t think it is ever too late to begin healing: I have known several people who reached new understandings and intimacy with loved ones even close to the end of their lives, which leaves a lasting legacy for their family.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and founder of the Parents Plus charity. See solutiontalk.ie for details of books and courses.