How Do I Succeed in Drug Rehab and Reconnect with My Son?

I have a lot of issues, but my major issue is disconnection with my 8-year-old son. I have not had any relationship or contact with him for two years. I am awaiting residential treatment for drug addiction, and I am very scared. I have been reading about a lot of failed rehab attempts at getting sober, and I guess my question is: Why is treatment for drug addiction not working for so many people, and what is the average success rate in completing a program? What are the steps you must take once you're done with treatment and back home? I understand that it doesn't just take a program to gain sobriety and that there are other factors at play. —Discouraged
Dear Discouraged,

Thanks for your question. And congratulations on your decision to get sober and go to treatment. I dare say it’s probably the best decision anyone in your position could ever make for themselves. It’s also understandable that you have questions about your son, what happens after treatment, what are your chances, and so forth.

Statistics are notoriously tricky with something like recovery because various studies have resulted in wildly varying numbers. There are also many differentiating factors involved—such as co-existing struggles with depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and so forth, not to mention age, number of attempts at sobriety, and legal consequences—that I think we have to take things on a case-by-case basis. The key factor in success is consistency and follow-up: pilots, nurses, and doctors, for instance, are often highly motivated to stay sober because their licenses and livelihoods depend on it. Often such professionals are required to stay in monitoring programs and outpatient treatment, which usually includes random urine screens, Alcoholics Anonymous, and/or therapy attendance, etc.

Not only am I personally clean and sober for 15-plus years (and grateful for it), but as a former residential counselor, I helped hundreds of people get clean and prepare for life after rehab, in terms of meetings, sponsors, therapy, psychiatry, urinalysis, coaching, outpatient programs, and other possibilities. There is an exploding treatment “industry” with mostly sober individuals who have devoted themselves to helping others find the sometimes difficult but much more rewarding life they, too, have found.

My experience is that the first half of rehab is about detoxing and functioning sober, while the second half is largely about preparing for a newly sober life. Ideally you will want to start talking about your “sobriety plan” halfway through treatment. You might ask for help finding regular meetings, perhaps a sponsor (who is ideally also a parent), and possibly an outpatient program (which some residential programs encourage or offer). Is counseling or psychiatric help indicated? If so, how can you connect with a good professional who is affordable? In your case, perhaps some family therapy may be advisable. Your job is to be honest about what you need, and the rehab provider’s job is to connect you with resources and collaborate on a workable blueprint for your new way of life. Don’t be afraid to be the squeaky wheel if you’re not getting these things. They are essential.

As for what leads to successfully staying sober, my observations corroborate what is presented in much of the 12-step literature, especially the AA “Big Book,” which says in effect that we stay sober by practicing the “HOW” principles of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. Can we be completely honest—perhaps emotionally vulnerable is another way to put it—in stating we need help, that we can no longer consistently control our behavior and cannot stop by ourselves; can we stay open-minded in thinking “outside the box” and considering new ideas, required given the cunning nature of addictive thought processes; and, finally, are we willing to do the relatively simple but emotionally challenging things required to stay sober, such as attend regular meetings, call our sponsor and sometimes tell on ourselves, work the steps the best we can, etc.? Sobriety is a new perspective, an outlook and a way of life, just as drinking or using drugs was. Coming “out of the closet” as an addicted person is scary but can also be exciting and, in the long run, quite liberating.

Not to be glib, but many people struggle with sobriety because they would rather, for a variety of reasons, drink or use. It is said that people with alcoholism are excellent sprinters, but sobriety is a marathon. Patience—not exactly in abundance while we’re still drinking—requires daily practice.

Not to be glib, but many people struggle with sobriety because they would rather, for a variety of reasons, drink or use. It is said that people with alcoholism are excellent sprinters, but sobriety is a marathon. Patience—not exactly in abundance while we’re still drinking—requires daily practice. We are on a new kind of clock now, one we can’t control. Still, there has never been a better time to be sober, given the abundance of recovery consciousness in our culture: online, in the 12-step community, in films, television, and music, and so forth.

I can’t encourage you highly enough to develop a three- or, preferably, six-month after-care plan for yourself. Another major factor contributing to long-term success is outpatient or counseling services after rehab—the longer the better. Those who stay with continued support, post-rehab, greatly improve their chances. Most of the people I’ve worked with for this issue have found that continued engagement with newly sober peers preserves a sense of community and belonging—which is crucial—and accountability to others, where one feels a part of a recovery “team,” with members cheering each other on. One recovery slogan says, “Don’t sit in the stands, get on the field.”

Additionally, counseling—most cities have low-cost addiction treatment resources available, if finances are a concern—can help with the underlying challenges that often accompany addiction, such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, as well as parenting or family conflicts. Physical and emotional withdrawal can often be painful, but it needn’t be impossible if non-addictive support is available via counseling or psychiatry. As always, work closely with a doctor who specializes in addiction.

Lastly, let’s talk about your main concern in regard to your son. Although it would be helpful to have more information about your specific situation, I would try to wait before making major decisions regarding that relationship. This is analogous to what we’re told on airplanes: stabilize yourself with oxygen before attending to your loved one. There is so much to be written about this, but the main point is that as a parent you set the tone and model a way of living, behaving, and relating to others. How you live sober is the most important “message” you can send.

Some children will be spiteful, angry, anxious, loving, quiet, withdrawn … all things are possible, and it usually doesn’t go the way we expect. Keep in mind that things will not change automatically simply because you’re sober. Repairing relationships is a slow, sometimes awkward process, and is not to be rushed. Certainly, action speaks louder than words.

While you’re in rehab, talk it over with your counselor in the context of the support you need to maintain sobriety. A very general rule of thumb in the recovery community is, “Don’t make any major changes in your first year.” Meaning your second or third month sober may not be the time to change careers, negotiate new custody agreements, and so forth. Sometimes it can’t be helped, but waiting is often better.

This is not to counsel you to avoid making contact with your son. Reuniting with him with a counselor present may be the appropriate plan. For some, the joy of a renewed relationship brings inspiration; for others, the guilt or shame is too overwhelming for one’s infant sobriety. The key, again, is to consult your support team and other sober parents, and reflect on it as best you can.

Again, I congratulate you on this brave step and wish you all the best of success. Work your program and stick with it. Life can only be lived, for all of us, a day at a time.

Best wishes,

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Laken

    February 12th, 2016 at 1:02 PM

    You have so many things that you are having to understandably worry about right now butt he real focus has to stay on you. get straight, sober, complete your program and everything else will fall into place after that. You can’t worry about all of these other things until you get your own life in order.

  • Kenneth

    February 14th, 2016 at 4:16 PM

    U just have to keep on keeping on. U can never make every one happy u just keep trying to improve yourself and eventually ask forgiveness.

  • James

    February 15th, 2016 at 10:19 AM

    I would worry that you are focused quite a bit on the failure rate of others instead of looking more at your own chances at success. You do not need to continually feel like you have to stack your own achievements as well as failures against those of other people. You have to do your own thing and make things work in a way that works for you.

  • Lane

    February 15th, 2016 at 1:33 PM

    have you considered that your son may be a little too young right now to understand what all of this actually means?

  • greta

    February 16th, 2016 at 10:28 AM

    I feel sort of sorry for those who are going through this in life, because you know that mostly they are trying to do all the right things but there is only so much that one can handle at a time. I would think that a good rehab counselor would work with you on this, helping you establish those critical to do lists of the things that have to be done and help you see that a lot of these things can indeed be broken down into more manageable smaller parts.

  • Polly

    February 17th, 2016 at 1:35 PM

    For me one of the secrets to beating this thing was to not stop treatment after the residential stay was over. I found meetings to go to, I continued to work one on one with a counselor after my release and I finally shared with my family members exactly what I was feeling and the things that made me want to turn back to drugs. I can’t say that it has been easy but it has been sort of freeing in a way to let go of some of the baggage and let others help me carry some of that load.

  • Jaxon

    February 18th, 2016 at 10:39 AM

    Have you considered the fact that the two of you may have to go into counseling together after you have gotten straight? Or that maybe he needs a little help with that right now? This is an awfully heavy weight for a kid that age to know what to do with.

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