Family members can be a critical support for people in recovery, and they can take what they learn in their families and become allies in the community. As recovery allies - parents, stepparents, grandparents, step grandparents, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins can all have a powerful role in spreading hope and making recovery visible.
Kaitlin MacKenzie is a young woman in recovery, and she has a lot to say about family support in early recovery. “My parents learned about substance use disorder, and that changed the way they reacted to me,” she said. “We all started talking about it, and that made a huge difference.”
Kaitlin followed the advice of a counselor who suggested that she write down what she needed most, and to share that with her parents. She asked them not to approach her harshly, to make sure they are there for her, that they listen, and that when they see her pushing them away, to find ways to help her from being isolated. Echoing the growing understanding that recovery is about connection, Kaitlin went a step further and said, “Judgment will always hurt, and love and connection will always help.”
Bob MacKenzie, Kaitlin’s father, has learned and grown from his experiences with Kaitlin. When I asked him “how do you support a family member in recovery?” he didn’t hesitate. “Be there. Let them know you love them. Let them know you will always be there.”
Bob is passionate about carrying the message that recovery is possible and there is always hope out into the community. Through his work as the Chief of the Kennebunk Police Department and as a Rotary member, he has changed the conversation about addiction in his community and across the state. He has participated in countless community meetings about addiction, with the aim of educating people on how addiction is a disease, and how recovery is possible. He makes sure the law enforcement officers in Kennebunk understand the importance of empathy and know how to talk “human to human” to the people they interact with. He has supported the training of dozens of recovery coaches in York County. In these ways, he has magnified his support of Kaitlin to a broader support of people in recovery in his community.
Kaitlin’s mother, Karen, is an elementary school teacher, and she, too, has learned from Kaitlin the importance of being open and non-judgmental. She put this to work creating a space for conversation when she and Kaitlin cooked together in the early days and weeks of Kaitlin’s recovery last summer. By connecting with her daughter, listening, being comfortable with silence, and letting conversations happen no matter the topic, her message to Kaitlin was, “I am beside you on this journey. I’m not going anywhere. I’m here.”
“It was wonderful for both of us,” Karen said. “I hope we can do it again next summer.”
Karen’s experience with Kaitlin has allowed her compassion to grow, and she feels she has more empathy now for people who are in difficult places in their lives. She feels a sense of gratitude for every day, every moment. “I carry that in my heart, with my students and their families. I know that some of them are affected by addiction,” Karen said. She has created a “safe zone” in her classroom where students know they can be safe, take a break, take care of themselves when they need to. She sees the families of her students as her family, too, and she tries to approach her relationships with them in an open and nonjudgmental way.
After creating a way for authentic emotions and real conversations to surface in the family, Karen said, “We’re all a little bit better now.” Perhaps that could be said for her community as well.
In a 2010 speech titled “Recovery is Contagious” at the North East Treatment Centers Consumer Council Recognition Dinner in Philadelphia, researcher and writer William White encouraged people in recovery to be “recovery carriers,” to spread recovery through affection and caring and making the transformative potential of recovery visible. Allies, too, can be recovery carriers, taking the message of hope and understanding with empathy and respect into their lives in the community. Recovery is contagious, and allies can be recovery carriers.
At the end of his speech, White left this message with everyone present, including individuals and families in recovery and allies of recovery: “Recovery is contagious. Get close to it. Stay close to it. Catch it. Keep catching it. Pass it on.”