Editor’s Note: Just like the people who have substance use disorders, their family and friends experience considerable suffering and strive for recovery. Our guest this week has agreed to share with us the pain of this experience as well as the successes that resulted when he persevered and was able to obtain effective treatment and support. I very much appreciate the willingness of Steve (family group facilitator) to speak to us.
All in the Family: Q & A with Kolmac Alumni Family Group Facilitator Steve R.
In 2002 Steve R.’s wife decided to get some help for her alcohol use disorder, and her first choice for treatment was the Kolmac Clinic. “As a dutiful spouse, when it was suggested that I attend the family group, I did,” Steve R. recalled. However, as he wrote in a spring 2013 article for the Kolmac Alumni Newsletter, Steve’s initial thought was, “It’s not my problem. Why am I here?”
His wife’s first and second attempts at participation in Kolmac’s Intensive Outpatient Program only lasted a few weeks, so the same was the case for him. Eventually, the couple ended up at NIH. “My wife got sober there from December to January 2003, and in January 2003 we returned to Kolmac,” Steve said. “I was going to Al-Anon meetings then and had embraced the reality of my situation. I knew that it would take a lot of effort on my part to process what had happened in order to rebuild our relationship.”
With this new outlook on the situation, Steve R. became a regular participant in Kolmac’s family group. “Lee Manley was the facilitator of the family group then, and he mentored from experience,” Steve explained. “He told me, ‘You get out of it what you put into it.’ His goal was to attract people and get them to stay.”
“Later when I was preparing to move on from the family group at Kolmac,” he continued, “the idea for an alumni family group was proposed.” The alumni group moved forward and had grown to 15-20 people when Steve R. made the transition from participant to volunteer facilitator.
Initially, he wasn’t interested in taking on that responsibility. However, he said, “The reality is that in the program when someone asks, you say ‘yes.’ I talked it over with my brain trust – my wife, my Al-Anon sponsor, and other friends in Al-Anon and decided to approach facilitating the group as a service opportunity.”
In his role as facilitator, Steve R. tries “to guide the conversation towards what we can do versus what we can’t do.” Recently, he talked with Modern Addiction Recovery about his experiences with Kolmac’s family groups as both a participant and a facilitator.
Why is this type of group (as opposed to formalized groups like Al-Anon or ones led by clinicians) important for families in recovery?
First of all, the intent of the family group is to be the bridge between the program and public groups with immediate access. It’s an introduction to change. That’s how it starts. I was attending Al-Anon meetings regularly before I started attending the family group. In Al-Anon, it’s already a socially awkward situation. I used to walk around the block before the meeting and leave right after. With the family group, you see the same people each week, and there are opportunities for discussion and getting feedback from the rest of the group. I came to the group with a lot of questions. You don’t get answers immediately, but I felt like I was getting help. Your experience can be helpful to other people if you talk about it honestly. People who’ve been through it can give you some suggestions. It’s a different way to address the myriad of emotions and situations that come up from the family point of view.
What is most challenging about working with the group? Rewarding?
The challenge is helping people understand that there’s personal responsibility on their part. When I first heard that, I heard that I was to blame somehow for my wife’s drinking. I had to learn that alcoholism is a genetic disorder and not a misconduct problem. Education is a piece is a big part of participating in the family group. If you hope to move from a place of resentment and fear to one of empathy and compassion, you need education and help for that.
The reward is watching people get better and having a personal epiphany about helping themselves without the need to cure anybody in the process. In many ways, I am still operating as a peer within the group. I’m facilitating this group, but I got here just like everyone else did. I don’t have any little letters after my name, and there are questions that I can’t answer, but there’s a lot that I do know. The reality of recovery is that there are very few patients for whom it’s a straight line. Of people who regularly attend my group, some have divorced, and others have lost their loved ones to the disease.
What would be your best advice for families in search of a support system?
My personal view is that if a person’s goal is to have a relationship with an alcoholic, the benefits of a personal recovery support system are immeasurable. The family group is instrumental as a first step. It helps you understand that there’s a benefit from doing personal work. I came to Kolmac thinking all I needed to do was get her in the door.
It’s important to understand that there will be a breadth of results. Early on it sure is nice to be optimistic. I was overly optimistic and then crushed several times. Once it was framed for me in terms of living through trauma, I realized that’s why it takes time and work to get things straightened in your own mind and participating in a family group can help you get there.