Addiction recovery therapists and families of addicts face contradicting challenges of remaining sufficiently flexible to respond to a substance abuser’s urges and emotional swings while simultaneously maintaining a sense of resolve not to give in to his attempts to manipulate people to supply him with drugs or alcohol.
In the context of addiction recovery, a boundary is an absolute rule that a recovering addict cannot break without facing consequences. A recovering addict will quickly conclude that boundaries do not exist if nothing happens when he breaks them. People make errors when they establish boundaries by making those boundaries unrealistic or by failing to follow up on consequences when a recovering addict ignores a boundary. These errors are understandable, as the good side of a person’s human nature will prevent him from imposing consequences if he sees that those consequences will cause pain or discomfort.
A good general guideline to establish healthy boundaries for recovering addicts is to make those boundaries specific. It is not enough for someone to tell a recovering addict that if he breaks a boundary, he will be sorry. Rather than making this form of a vague threat, someone who is helping an addict to recover should establish a hard rule, for example, that if he does not attend regular group recovery meetings, he will lose another specific privilege, such as going out to meet with friends in social settings or using a family car for transportation.
At an extreme, someone who is living with a recovering addict might tell him that if the addict goes back to using drugs or alcohol, even once after going through rehab, then the addict will need to move out of the house he is sharing with that person. This can be an unhealthy boundary if it is not followed. Where teens or adolescents are concerned, it can be a wholly unrealistic boundary to the extent that his parents are legally obligated to provide support and care for him. Other alternative boundaries are available for parents and caregivers to establish with teens and adolescents. Counselors and addiction recovery therapists can help families establish realistic and healthy boundaries with workable consequences if a teen or adolescent continues to abuse substances after completing rehab.
Healthy boundaries do more than just help a recovering addict stay on a course to long-term sobriety. They also help families and caregivers to take care of themselves and to maintain as normal a lifestyle as is possible within their family unit. Families that establish vague boundaries or that impose consequences unevenly often create tension within their family unit that can threaten both the recovering addict and the family unit itself. If one person in a family supplies drugs or alcohol to a recovering addict in contravention of boundaries that a family has established, then both the addict and the entire family will suffer. Healthy boundaries are established when all family members understand and agree to enforce them uniformly and without exception. This can lead to difficulties for an addicted family member who consistently violates boundaries and then finds himself alienated from family activities, but ultimately he will come to understand that those boundaries were established to help him, and that he can get back into a family’s good graces by adhering to them.
Sustain Recovery Services in southern California provides counseling to help families of adolescents and young adults establish healthy boundaries to overcome drug addiction and alcoholism. Please see our website or call us at 949-407-9052 for more information about our services or to arrange a confidential consultation with one of our counselors.