By: Gerald Gaura, LMFT
Q. Over the summer I went to the outpatient program to help with an alcohol problem I was having. It went well, and I feel like I am in a really great place now. I have since gone back to work as an elementary teacher, and no one knows about me getting help for my problem over the summer or that I even had one. I am very proud of myself for regaining my health, and so is my family. They even think I should share it with people at work, so I could be a possible inspiration to others. But I’m concerned that if parents find out they might not be as understanding as my colleagues. Should I mention my recovery at work and possibly encourage others who might be secretly struggling with an addiction? Or should I keep it to myself?
— Ellen J., Hamden, CT
A. Thank you for your question, Ellen. This question represents a very challenging personal journey for people in recovery, and to start, I need to acknowledge that there is simply no right or wrong way to approach who you choose to share it with. As a therapist and facilitator who works with both clients and family members in recovery, I find that each person has to determine what — and to whom — they are comfortable communicating.
So to start, the first bit of advice I would offer is this: learn to be patient with yourself. Reduce the sense of pressure and go as slowly as you need to. Seek support. Moving too quickly can result in added pressure, and pressure can generate emotions that aren’t very helpful in recovery. So avoid these emotional pitfalls with patience if you can.
Secondly, I would consider this question as a great opportunity to address a key issue in recovery communication– and that’s fear. Let’s use your situation as an opportunity to address the role fear can play in influencing the negative messages and false beliefs.
Let’s start by considering the source of your fear — or the fear that’s driving your question. You state, “I’m concerned that if parents find out they might not be as understanding as my colleagues.” Can you identify what your fear is associated with here? Do you think your fear is related to factors within your circle of control or outside of your circle of control? The answer, or course, is outside of your circle of control. You cannot control the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, or beliefs of people once they learn about your recovery. You also can’t control what the parents you referenced might do with the information once they have it. It’s helpful to focus more on what is in your control to create positive momentum in recovery. For example, I can focus on how I choose to communicate my recovery and to whom I go to for support. I can also focus on steps to build integrity in my recovery and life. We go backward when we begin to focus on all the external factors, and this usually amounts to buying into fears of what other people could say, think, feel, or believe.
Thirdly, it may help to look deeper at the beliefs operating behind your fears. At Mountainside, we like to use the book The Four Agreements as a blue print for recovery. In it, author Don Miguel Ruiz talks about the importance of understanding the negative beliefs that often drive our thoughts, feelings, and destructive behaviors. For instance, if you were to look deeper, perhaps you would find a stubborn old belief or negative message fueling your question. Maybe it’s one that says, “People won’t accept me if I tell them where I’ve been,” or “I’m better off hiding my personal story and needs.” Negative beliefs like these could certainly create barriers to developing the muscle of open communication. Beliefs like these are also examples of what Don Miguel would call “False Beliefs,” as they are often rooted in our own misperceptions, self-judgement, and the biggest challenge of them all in recovery — shame. Shame is particularly problematic, as it is connected to the false notion that says, “I am the problem.” You are not the problem, Ellen, addiction is. Letting go of this false belief can be a giant step toward healing in recovery.
Also, our perceptions rarely add up to reality. People don’t typically respond in the way we like to imagine they will. We may fear communicating, but learning to step through that fear (when ready) can help to liberate us from our false beliefs. One thing I’ve discovered in working with people in life-long active recovery is that many prefer to openly share their recovery. They tend to see sharing as an opportunity to create momentum and build authentic relationships. Recovery, as a whole, seems to reward emotional honesty. And with that, we have come full circle and back to a powerful principle in recovery, which is to always focus the choices that are within your circle of control and let go of those that are outside. In the case of your question, perhaps it will help to focus on the kinds of relationships you could create, if you take steps to share more openly in your recovery.
Thanks again for the excellent question, Ellen. I hope you found this response helpful. Now go be amazing!