Family Support and Balance in Recovery: Tips and Takeaways from Dr. Steve Sutton

Family Support and Balance in Recovery: Tips and Takeaways from Dr. Steve Sutton

By Becca Wetzel

In the final installment in our interview series with Dr. Steve Sutton, we examine the role of the family in sobriety, and how one can cultivate health and fun in recovery. Dr. Sutton leads Bridging the Gap’s Medical Program and is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine, Board Certified in Integrative Medicine, and is a former surgeon who is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. The first interview in our series can be found here.

Addiction is a complicated and difficult disease that requires willingness on the part of more than just the addict. Dr. Sutton discusses the difficult and touchy dynamic that can often come into play in communicating with family about their role in a loved one’s recovery. We also talked about the need to seek personal enjoyment and a sense of balance in recovery.

From your perspective, what is important for family members to know about recovery?

It is always hard with family members and, in a way, I always walk on eggshells around family members because addiction is a family disease. And a lot of people in the family either don’t have knowledge about that, or they don’t want to hear it, or they don’t want to take responsibility for their part in the substance use disorder or addiction. I would hope that we are getting out of the age where family members say ‘just get over it’. You still see family members saying, ‘what’s wrong with you, why can’t you just quit’. There are still some that think that way, but I think more and more you tend to see family members who are open minded enough to say that you have a medical issue that needs to be treated.

 I want to make sure they understand that it’s a family disease and, even if they don’t want to hear it, to understand that there are dynamics within the family that could make someone more susceptible to substance use or abuse.  So I don’t want to shame or throw guilt on family members that they are the cause, but I think that it’s important to understand that not only could they be a part of the problem, but they are a part of the solution as well. If we say that it’s a family disease, then we have to say that it’s a family solution to treatment too. You can’t just send one to treatment and then send them back in the household with the family and expect everything to be different. They need to be a part of the solution, as well.

If there was something that you could be sure that someone would follow through with after treatment, what would it be?

Wow, that’s difficult. I am biased in the medical part. I am not involved in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and I don’t practice that, so for me it’s medical. If we are talking about relapse prevention, you know, we think of H.A.L.T.:  hungry, angry, lonely, tired. Angry is a core emotion that on some level has to do with fear and dealing with that and coming to terms with what’s going on. So that’s sort of the individual in a psychotherapeutic way dealing with internal emotions and coming up with other tools to cope with emotions in life.  Lonely is social, so a new social network is necessary whether it’s AA or NA or whatever. So that leaves hungry and tired which are biological; and that’s fifty percent of the equation. Fifty percent of relapse warning signs are biological in nature. So I am biased from a medical point of view, but I would say one really important thing that you need to follow through with is taking care of yourself.  I think because most people put themselves low on the priority list. It’s not as easy as just going to aftercare and AA – you’ve really got to take care of yourself. I think that most people don’t follow through on that as well as I would like them to.

Taking care of yourself is important. That can involve finding fun and enjoyment in recovery too. What do you do for fun?

I think it’s important to recognize that, when you take away the substance, you feel like you just have nothing. I can tell you from my personal experience that, when I came out of treatment, what I was really involved in was exercise. I am hesitant to say that, because I don’t want to say it was a cross-addiction, but it was really important to me. I started doing triathlons and I was swimming a lot and biking a lot and I got a lot of pleasure out of that. It became important to me during treatment because there was a core group of us that got a lot of pleasure from going to the gym and working out.

 I also started getting back into music. I like music. I play guitar and I like cooking. I took over cooking because I didn’t have a job so my wife was like, ‘you get to do the cooking’. I started making these elaborate meals because I’d have all day to shop and make dinner and I really enjoyed cooking. My kids enjoyed me cooking. Some [of what I enjoy] has changed over the years too. I think you have to be able to be flexible and adapt because, if something doesn’t work out, your whole world collapses.

So, part of it is to “mix it up” and do different things?

For many people, they focus on work. When people tell me, ‘I work all the time, I love my work, and that’s what’s helping me to stay sober,’ I caution those people. If you get hit by a car on your bicycle and you can’t work, what is going to keep you sober then? What else are you doing in your life that’s occupying your time? You put everything into work and that’s what you love to do, but then if you lose work and you become disabled for some reason, what are you going to do? When it comes to any one thing, I hate to hear that’s what keeps you sober because it is sort of scary to me.  I like for people to branch out and do different things, be flexible, and adaptable; so that if you’re not able to do this, then your whole world isn’t going to fall apart.

So I always caution people not just to do one thing that is all consuming because, if you lose that – or have the inability to continue in that – then it becomes difficult. Certainly, if you are talking about people with a history of substance abuse, than it would put them at high risk if they don’t have any avenues to shift and change, so it’s important to have wide variety of interests and things that make you happy.

Addiction is a complicated disease and, as the addict heals and begins their recovery, so must the family. This often requires the family to seek out support of their own. At Bridging the Gaps, we offer targeted support and education to loved ones to promote their own healing and enhance their ability to support someone they care about in treatment.

For family members seeking additional help and resources:

Explore and find support in Al- Anon .  Also, learn more about Structured Family Recovery®, a program which aims to bring family members together into a supportive, cohesive team.

Postscript: In Spring 2013, Dr. Sutton had a serious bike accident which left him with debilitating injuries and a lengthy road to recovery, making it impossible to engage in exercise and physical activity for months.  This event was life-changing for such an active person, and became an object lesson for Dr. Sutton in the need to diversify and stay flexible in recovery.

The need to diversify in life is applicable for both those in recovery and those supporting a loved one. When we put all of our energy in one direction we miss the complex beauty of who we are; we don’t embrace the breadth of personality, skills, and interests that make each of us unique. What about you? Are there things you are doing to broaden your horizons and explore new interests to help you prepare for whatever life throws your way?

I want to thank Dr. Sutton for taking the time to share the story of how his passion for integrative addiction medicine was shaped by his own recovery journey. His perspective as a medical professional can often cut to the chase and get to the heart of what needs to be said about treatment and life in recovery. I hope that you have found this series interesting and helpful. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this series and our other posts. So, please be sure to share your thoughts, comments and feedback!

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