The Role of Relationships in Addiction Recovery: An Interview with expert Austin Brown
This article was originally featured on Recovery.org
Austin M Brown, LMSW, is the Associate Director of Research and Programming at the Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery Kennesaw State University. He is a graduate of the University of Vermont, where he obtained a Master’s Degree in Transformative Social Work. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Texas Tech, with a focus on addiction studies. Currently, he is the Associate Director of Research and Programming at the Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery.
Austin works primarily as a recovery scientist and researcher, and has co-authored multiple peer-reviewed articles involving various aspects of the continuum of care including treatment systems, collegiate recovery programs, and community-based recovery support systems.
Austin’s main research focuses on strength-based recovery theory, measurement, and the psychosocial aspects of change in recovery. Theoretically, he is oriented toward recovery-informed constructs, and believes that long-term, successful recovery is self-evident and emancipatory. He sees the role of recovery science as an effort to study and replicate successful recovery trajectories along intrapersonal, interpersonal, and ecological lines.
Austin is in long-term recovery himself and intimately understands the role that relationships play in both addiction and recovery. I was fortunate enough to sit down with him recently to discuss the topic of relationships, and here’s what he had to say.
Liv: What role do parental relationships play in the development of substance use disorder?
Austin: Parents play three key roles in my opinion —the first is of course, the passing on of genetic material which may render one susceptible to substance use issues down the road. The second would be the modelling of using behaviors, research shows that children that grow up in homes where substance use is normalized, go on to have a higher risk of substance issues. The third is the role of parenting styles itself; abusive, neglectful, and traumatic parenting styles increase the risk for future substance use disorders.
Liv: What other relational issues may contribute?
Austin: Well there are many. For brevity sake, I think we could say that unstable, or unreliable consistencies and attachments to others can create problems that increase risk. Primarily, if one spends their formative years in emotionally unreliable, abusive, or neglectful environments, they are never able to fully trust that they will be able to get their physical or emotional needs met. This creates anxiety, and turns relationships into stressful events that can incite all types of neuroticism, including the need to escape or find relief in substances.
Liv: Conversely, what impact do social relationships have within the recovery process? And what form may those social supports take?
Austin: Recovery is all about relationships. In the substance-using career of an individual, they are unable to maintain stable relationships that are also healthy. These include the relationship with themselves, with other people, and even with ideas and institutions (like your relationship to your bank account, or law enforcement). This is really where we begin to see the pathology of substance disorders appear.
Relationships are the stage upon which the addiction occurs. In recovery, we see the inverse of this. People accept certain truths about themselves early on; this then changes the attitudes of those around them, who genuinely want to help. Socially they begin to gravitate from using associations to non-using associations, and in the process, they enact recovery behaviors. It is through this enacting of pro-social behaviors that the individual gradually internalizes the identity of someone who is in recovery. This is most easily illustrated in 12-step groups, where the individual “admits” their own experience in a group setting, and accepts the proscribed behaviors of that group (working the steps), and then testifies to the application of principles of the steps in their daily life within the group as they work through the steps. Over time, this orients the individual to the values, beliefs, norms and shared meaning of the group.
Outside of the 12-steps and other mutual aid groups, we see evidence that even those who “spontaneously remit” or in “natural recovery”, do so by bringing to bear the supportive social forces in their life- be it their family, church, or employers.
Liv: What other important relationships might one form in the progression of recovery?
Austin: Virtually any relationship that is situated within a healthy amount of social currency that is based on truth, reciprocity, and supportive accountability can support recovery. The name of the game in recovery is personal growth. Ergo, any relationship that challenges, supports, and affirms the individual’s personal growth can be beneficial, whether that is a local Yogi, a supportive boss, or others in recovery.
Liv: It has been said that in the process of recovery that many experience confusion and continued dysfunction in their romantic partners and their mothers. In your experience when in the recovery continuum does this topic most often arise?
Austin: Early, typically within the first year but sometimes much longer. The propensity to utilize others to elicit a sense of “okayness” is a holdover from the disorder. Rather than improving themselves through growth, they use others to import a sense of self-worth, which ultimately slows their growth processes. I believe that real success in recovery occurs when the individual turns the corner on self-esteem and self-worth by being able to produce these elements on their own, for themselves, independent of others.
Liv: How might people in recovery achieve relational health?
Austin: To achieve relational health, one must be able to recognize and respond to the impact they have on others. It seems paradoxical that by focusing on others, the individual heals the relationship with themselves, but it isn’t.
People with an active use disorder have very clear blind spots, namely toward themselves and their own behaviors. Accessing themselves through healthy intentional behaviors toward others is a work-around that allows the person in early recovery to become more understanding of their relationship with the person in the mirror.
To do this however, the understanding of what is and is not healthy behavior often has to be thoroughly taught to them early in the recovery process. Boundaries are fundamental to healthy relationships, and are a particular area of sensitivity for the individual in recovery and those around them. Permission to delineate and inter-negotiate boundaries is generally the first step in the process of developing healthy behaviors toward others.
Liv: To what extent does a relationship with oneself impact recovery?
Austin: Well to borrow from the axiom – one cannot devalue themselves while at the same time equitably love others. For those in recovery, this means that getting healthy in relationships, with themselves and with others is the principle task of early recovery, and can do more to sustain recovery than anything else. As mentioned in the previous question, those in recovery often have to reverse the process in order to get around their own blind spots, but doing so should be the priority early on.
Liv: Some mutual-aid groups can promote dependence in early recovery. How might someone learn to become more interdependent, and ultimately empowered, as they progress in their recovery?
Austin: I think the key word to consider here is the term “equity”. Any emotional transaction is like a monetary transaction. We have to have agreed upon currency, that currency has to be equally valued between parties, and the transaction itself should leave everyone involved feeling they were treated fairly, even when they may not profit from the transaction directly. Those in active disorder are like emotional black holes. People give to them with no returns. This has to be reversed.
Healthy movement from disorder to emancipation in recovery involves moving from a place of need to a place of giving. Learning one’s strengths, one’s blind spots, when to support others, and when to allow themselves to be supported, are all hallmarks of equitable relationships. This allows us to give and take in proper proportions, which ensures our needs, and the needs of others are all met using the same currency. Knowing when to give, and when to take, is essentially the art of graceful living.
Liv: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Austin: Only this: In one’s own personal recovery, and in the scientific study of recovery, we can see that the health of our relationships, and even the relationships themselves, function as a mirror to the health of our recovery. How we treat our mothers, friends, co-workers, children, and even our pets and plants should be the litmus test we use to judge our own health in recovery.
Recovery is about being free, not just from our pasts and our troubles, but free to love, free to express love, free to nurture without losing ourselves in the process, and free to be loved by others. In recovery, as in life, it is the act of love, the energy of love, which allows us to be who we really are, and to become who we really want to be. Thank you for this opportunity.