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Rebuilding Trust: A Roadmap for Families


I vividly remember my son standing in my kitchen, sifting through the fridge with a friend telling me that they were "helping each other stay sober" and were "headed to a meeting, then fellowship".

What I desperately wanted was to believe him, but instinctively I knew - They were neither sober, nor headed to a meeting.

When someone you love is trapped in the grips of substance use disorder, it's easy to start seeing their behaviors as the totality of who they are. The constant chaos, broken promises and painful betrayals can completely erode your ability to separate the disordered behaviors from the person you care so deeply about underneath it all.

You desperately want to believe in that person - in the dreams, hopes and fundamental goodness that still resides within them despite the hurt. But how can you, when every piece of data that you hear and see is showing up as someone else? Someone that looks nothing like that person whom you love. You become reflexively doubtful, dismissive and closed off to believing anything they say.

If this resonates, you're not alone. One of the most common goals families express when seeking my support is a desire to restore trust with their loved one in recovery. Trust is undoubtedly a casualty when active addiction takes over. So how do you begin to rebuild it? I've developed a 3-phase process to help families navigate this immense challenge:

Phase 1: Laying the Foundation

The first step is creating an environment where trust has fertile soil to gradually take root again. This involves committing to open, judgment-free communication, setting realistic expectations for the recovery journey ahead, and taking accountability for personal growth. Rebuilding trust requires vulnerability and effort from all parties involved. For me this required meeting my son in a place where he was, not interested in sobriety, in order to lay the foundation. I stopped talking about the behavior of substance use and made intentional decisions to connect to him - the person. It was hard. There were not many things left about the person he had been, but it meant that the change burden started with me.

Phase 2: Building Brick-by-Brick

With the foundation prepped, it's time to take those incremental steps in regaining trust through consistent words and actions over time. You'll need to objectively "collect data" on progress being made, celebrate small wins, and recalibrate expectations along the way.

"Collecting date" requires family members to face facts head on instead of wishing they were different. I had to learn to consistently speak and display predictable responses to my son's behaviors. I didn't let a bad day pull me off track and similarly I didn't let a good day erase the data that he was still in active use. I showed up in our interactions in ways that built trust and safety for him, which consequently motivated him to show up authentic with me.

Phase 3: Solidifying the Bond Through Shared Experiences

After the brickwork of rebuilding trust incrementally, the final phase centers around solidifying and reinforcing those bonds through authentic shared experiences. The goal is to create opportunities to genuinely reconnect and re-experience who you loved one is at their core, beyond the disorder.

This could involve activities you once enjoyed together - reminding them and you who you once were. Or it may mean making new memory anchors by experiencing things that allow you to be present, expressive, and vulnerable with one another. For me, this included inviting my son into things that I found joy in to share, and it also included me getting uncomfortable engaging in activities that he was building his recovery around, such as rock climbing.

The key is creating a safe space to rekindle your basic understanding of each other, shed the layers of hurt and judgment, and begin reestablishing an organic rapport built on trust.

Solidifying trust goes beyond a single moment and requires an ongoing commitment to shared experiences over time.

Of course, the path of trust rebuilding is arduous and deeply personal for each family. Trust is built slowly, over time. It is not accomplished in a one time event. By providing a framework and committing to the process together, you can rediscover the person you love beneath the disorder. Reuniting and solidifying that bond is possible, even when it seems permanently fractured.

If you're interested in exploring this trust rebuilding process further, I invite you to reach out to learn more about how I can support your family's unique situation.

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