There are so many changes in the recovery dynamic it’s hard to keep up. The process that is recovery is not smooth. Substance users and their families may think they’re communicating, making progress, but then something happens and growth feels like a rubber band stretched too far. When it snaps back and delivers a black eye, it can feel like a painful betrayal.
Why Recovery Language Can Feel Like A Betrayal
Maggie, a mom, recently got such a metaphoric black eye. Her son JJ been clean for two years, he was doing great in his work—in fact everything should have been golden. Maggie was more than eager to relax and move on to the next phase of their lives. Their back story was a rocky one, of course, as recovery often is. JJ had relapsed a few times, but he had good tools, good support a good relationship, more self-esteem and success at his job. She was hoping for the best.
Wreckage Cleanup Takes Time
But the addiction wreckage was still with them. After years of being tortured by a dynamic that included Maggie’s “attempts to control JJ’s behavior and nagging” on her side and a good deal of “prevarication and manipulation” on JJ’s side, Maggie was now concerned about some red flags she saw in him during this more established stage of their recovery. JJ had developed some “controlling habits” that pushed every one of Maggie’s buttons. Whenever she opened her mouth, he literally shut her up.
Mom Had Become The Enemy
“Nothing I could say felt “appropriate” to him. I was no longer a trusted mom. He could list all the things I had done to hurt him, but voicing my views about anything “crossed his boundaries.” He didn’t want to hear a word from me,” she said. “There was no way to neutralize what was happening between us without my agreeing with everything he said. It felt as if he was attending recovery law school. And I was the defendant in a court case.”
Oh oh. JJ now seemed to be using his recovery language to try to re-make Maggie into the mom we all wish we had: endlessly patient, loving, accepting of whatever we said, forever supportive. And most of all silent and submissive.
Being Able To Tell The Truth is Important
For moms in recovery, silent and submissive means death--sometimes literally and sometimes soul. And being controlled is out of the question. To Maggie, being lectured to was like returning to the toxic family dynamic she thought they’d left behind. Her husband had shut her up exactly the same way, and she wasn’t going back to that again. Everything had been going well, but the relationship rubber-banded back into crisis anyway.
In the end, JJ’s wish to impose verbal “boundaries” on his mom backfired. Maggie was shamed by the things he said about her, but it didn’t make her want to comply with his "rules for her conduct." In fact, all his talk about boundaries and need for safety made her feel she needed some boundaries and safety of her own.
What Is The Solution
Can JJ learn not to try to rigidly control his mom? Can Maggie find a comfortable way to communicate with JJ that doesn’t hurt him or compromise her own safety and sense of self? In recovery, they say progress, not perfection. What does that mean? As families struggle with better ways to communicate, it’s important to be careful with the tools. What’s supposed to be useful can backfire and have unintended consequences. Real Recovery means back to square one over and over. Like old age, it's not for sissies.