Recovery and forgiveness go hand-in-hand. Health research has shown that working through forgiveness in addiction therapy can reduce an addict’s risk of relapsing and increase their sense of gratitude. While we intuitively know that forgiveness can be healthy, that doesn’t dismiss how difficult it can be for two loved ones to forgive each other—especially coming from the wreckage of substance abuse.
How do you move past a tarnished relationship history? Who all needs to forgive and be forgiven? Consider the following thoughts on working toward forgiveness on every side of an addiction.
Understanding the history
Substance abuse tears through families, prompting lies, secrets, guilt, and empty promises. Relationships become ridden with misunderstanding. Just like the drugs’ effects, families of addicts experience drastic highs and lows, characterized by cycles of quitting and using again. Even in the best of circumstances, family dynamics change. As a relationship’s history becomes convoluted with using, fighting, and disappointment, the parties involved become increasingly resentful of one another.
One of the key aspects of forgiveness is releasing resentment. Over the course of an addiction, trust may be tested and lost in the midst of substance abuse problems. Multiple factors can contribute to someone using, such as tragedy, family illness, financial hardship, abuse, or other personal struggles. Each of these aspects is likely witnessed and experienced alongside other people. This is why family recovery is so important—each person needs to be heard and healed.
Part of forgiving yourself is letting go of shame. When we release the judgments we pass on ourselves, we can step out of embarrassment and self-condemnation. Dr. Brene Brown, a bestselling author and sociologist, reports from her research that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, and aggression. Shame is debilitating. Shame counters a person’s steps toward addiction recovery, limiting how much the addict will heal. When you’re constantly replaying events and beating yourself up for your past, you sabotage your own ability to recover. You will remain stuck in the same emotions of guilt and unworthiness until you forgive yourself.
As a loved one, perhaps you fell into a situation of enabling an addict, hoping to protect them from greater consequences. You tried to ignore or conceal the problem and blamed any issues on external factors. You were part of the lies and cover-ups on the addict’s behalf, and someone else might have been hurt or misled because of it. Whatever you fault yourself for in the process, that weight can be lifted by releasing your shame and forgiving yourself. Dr. Brown adds that the antidote for shame is empathy. Both the addict and the loved one are in extraordinary need of empathy.
As an addict, maybe your family never supported you in the ways you needed. Maybe you were neglected, bullied, or mistreated as a child or an adult. Perhaps certain memories have bothered you for years, marking milestones that drove you to turn to substances for comfort. Your troubles with drugs and alcohol were shaped by people who hurt you along the way, whether or not they knew the heavy impact of their actions. But just as others might need to forgive you for pain your addiction inflicted, you can find healing and liberation by forgiving the people who made you feel forgotten and alone.
From a loved one’s perspective, maybe an addict’s actions were harmful to the rest of the family. Even with second and third chances, the episodes seemed to repeat themselves. You tried to show grace and keep the family together, but you felt let down over and over as the problem progressed. The addict’s attempts to quit were always short-lived, and you felt foolish for believing the problems were fixed. But even if you’re coming from a long, painful history, releasing grudges can bring relief and allow you to truly heal.
How can your family become stronger after going through addiction treatment? Research shows that family therapy can help each family member make specific, positive changes as the recovering addict goes through changes. Through forgiveness and reconciliation, you can be empowered to support each other through recovery with more freedom and peace of mind.
As you move toward forgiveness on all sides, find out more about family recovery plans.