The seven stages of family recovery

The seven stages of family recovery

I’ve made some connections this week with The National Family Support Network in Ireland. They provide information, support and advice to family members living with substance misuse.  If you live in the UK, ADFAM do similar work here.

A study was undertaken in Ireland in 2007 by Dr Carmel Duggen, for the National Advisory Committee on Drugs (NACD). She looked at the ways people coped with a family member’s heroin use. She identified seven stages that family members go through, regardless of their economic or social background. It was found that going through these stages helped affected family members to move on from a role of a victim into a role of support and recovery. This applies to their own recovery, regardless of whether their loved one chooses to continue using substances or not.

This study identified seven different stages of how family members eventually come to manage heroin use within the family. This way of thinking is now applied to family members in a wider context who are living with a loved one’s drug or alcohol use.

There are lots of models to explain recovery and, as you probably know, the cycle of change is a fabulous one. I wrote a blog about it here. It really is a good idea for people living in this difficult situation to familiarise themselves with tools to use that can help.

The stages


Here is my interpretation of the stages in line with the Vesta Approach’s method of supporting family recovery.


Stage One: Unknowing

This is when families are not aware that a family has a problem with drugs or alcohol. Either that, or they don’t know the signs. As this period goes on, the substance use will usually worsen prior to the realisation that something is wrong.


Stage Two: Coping Alone

Once a family member finds out about the problem, They will often try and cope with the situation alone, trying all sorts of methods to help them to change. This is so hard to do when you are not a trained professional and when you worry about what people think or try to hide the problem. The best thing to do is to ask for help.


Stage Three: Desperately Seeking Help

Families at this point reach out for help from services as a reaction to their loved one’s substance use. This is difficult because they do not know where to go for help. In my experience, many families think rehab is the only answer and focus on help for the person using substances rather than themselves. Getting help for yourself is the best course of action because you cannot force your loved one to get help. Trust me, it doesn’t work.


Stage Four: Supported Learning

Family members begin to research addiction, substance use or the drug their loved one is taking. They may be starting to get some structured help and support for themselves. Families will start to learn about how to respond and not to react when their loved one uses their substance and learn new and effective strategies to cope. Strategies will always be unique to your situation.


Stage Five: Reclaiming the Family

At this stage, affected family members have engaged in support for themselves and begin to understand that they cannot change their loved one, they can only change themselves. NFSN say, ‘Part of this is separating the needs of the family and their own needs from those of the drug user. Families begin to separate the family dynamic from the drug dynamic and start to address the wider family needs.’ So, this is a case of practising the new strategies over a period of time, setting clear boundaries and giving own needs priority attention.


Stage Six: Supporting Recovery

Families have found the strategies that work for them and have learnt the skills to change the environment in which they live so that they can influence change and tip the balance so that drug or alcohol use becomes less attractive than sobriety. Strategies such as ‘rewarding your loved one when sober’ or ‘withdrawing when your loved one uses’, while, at the same time, providing love, support and encouraging their loved one to make better choices.

Stage Seven: Contributing

Once a family member is in a recovery process from their loved one’s substance use, they will be able to support others who are going through the similar experiences. I set up a mentoring programme in a previous project. The families can contribute by telling their own story and guiding others through the recovery process which is invaluable to those who are struggling to cope themselves.


Tell me in the comments what stage you think you’re at.


I can help


My service, The Vesta Approach, supports families affected by a loved one’s substance use. You can access confidential support from me wherever you are in the world. I will help you to get your loved one into treatment and lead a better life. I offer face to face sessions in the Manchester (UK) area or via Skype worldwide.

I also have an online therapeutic programme. Take a look at my services here

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

I have a closed Facebook Group called Vesta Confidential. If you are affected by a loved one’s substance use, come and join me.


Sign up to my mailing list here to keep up to date with Vesta news and get my free Ten Steps to Family Recovery download.


Take care,


Dealing with aggression

Dealing with aggression

Recently, I’ve been thinking about aggression. I shared last year that I had been in a violent relationship in my twenties. It was a very difficult time, but, I learnt an awful lot from it. The main thing I learnt was that it is not acceptable for anyone to shout, hit, control or forcefully put themselves into a position of power, whether alone or in front of others.

In my professional life, I have completed a lot of training around domestic violence and also worked in organisational development where my team trained people in assertiveness and resilience. Knowing how to ‘do it’ and putting the skills into action around are emotions is a tricky challenge.

I’ll hold my hands up, when I was younger, I did not used to be as emotionally intelligent as I am now. I used to react to whatever feeling was going on inside me. If someone was annoying me I’d snap at them, if a situation annoyed me I would vent to anyone that would listen, if someone challenged my values, I would be absolutely raging!

Through my learning and self-development. I have worked on this and mantra is ‘respond, don’t react’. This applies to reacting to my own feelings as well as being on the receiving end of someone else’s. Trying to remember this mantra works well. Trust me!


Fight, flight or freeze


Our responses to experiencing stress, aggression or danger are fight, flight or freeze. I have examples of all three. Have you ever been in relationships with people that push your buttons and your values clash so much that when they argue with you, you can’t help but fight back? Does this get you anywhere? Maybe, in some circumstances where there is absolutely no other option and it’s a choice between life or death. Probably not in any other situation. This goes for arguing back too.


A man at Christmas chased me and my daughter in our car in a fit of road rage as I turned into a road and made him jump! It was one of those roads that appears to be wide, but when you turn into it, it’s really narrow- so it makes you jump when people turn in. As I turned into my street, I saw him behind me flashing his lights and beeping. As my daughter is four years old, I knew I had to protect her. After a on the spot risk assessment, I thought, there is no chance I’m going to pull into my drive. I carried on driving and called my husband. I drove for about a mile and a half hoping he would go, but he didn’t. Guess what? I ended up at a traffic light! It turned red. He got out and started yelling for me to wind window down. I knew I had to bring him down from his rage. With the window firmly closed and the car locked, I simply said, ‘I have my daughter in the car. My husband is on the phone. Please go away.’ Something in that sentence brought him down and he walked away.


We sometimes freeze when someone does or says something hurtful or embarrassing about us. I personally think that when this happens to me, it is about not being able to process what’s been said in the moment. We may not want to react inappropriately. ‘Freezing’ is how we would describe a deer in headlights. Animals freeze to try and prevent danger, such as an attacker from seeing them move. It is part of our instinct to do the same.


What is aggression?


Aggression is an inappropriate response to feelings of stress or someone or something perceived as a threat. It is where an individual believes they are standing up for themselves, but in a hostile way. This behaviour stems from not being able to see another person’s point of view, and often, not caring whether they have a view or not. An aggressive person’s views are right, ours are wrong. Life is black and white, there are no grey areas and quite frankly, they are not interested in hearing the our point of view.


Aggressive Behaviours


Aggressive behaviour is acted out in many forms, from anger, threats, bullying, shouting, punishing, coercion, control, verbal or physical violence, and conversion strategies to try and wear someone down.  People who regularly display aggressive behaviours can be authoritarian and genuinely believe it’s their way or the highway. They may have wider emotional or mental health issues going on, or be using substance problematically.

Friendships with aggressors are usually based around their perceived influence, fear and protection as opposed to friendships being formed because of commonalities and the enjoyment of someone else’s company. This is how cults and gangs are formed-by fear not fun.


Dealing with aggression


In the moment of an aggressive act, we will naturally have a fight, flight or freeze response. It’s instinctive. We are likely to complete a mini-risk assessment of the situation we are in.

Personal safety is paramount above any strategy whatsoever. If there is any threat of violence, get out of there. Walk away, run. Whatever you need to do.

Another mantra of mine is that ‘you can’t rationalise with someone who isn’t rational’. My advice is do not even try to engage in a conversation with someone who is not rational at that point. If they are drunk, angry or intoxicated in any way, do not bother to try any techniques. Leave them to it and speak to them when sober or calmer.


  1. Stay calm- have you ever had a good result from arguing back or retaliating? Probably not. So it’s best to avoid it!


  1. Empathy- are they having a bad day? Is the behaviour unusual? What’s actually going on for that person on that day?


  1. Take ownership- are you responsible for anything? Have you behaved aggressively yourself? Name it. I’m sorry I was talking during your presentation, but… (see point 5) We all make mistakes!


  1. Say something!- Only you can decide whether you say something in the moment or following an event. If someone just is not listening, forget it. Withdraw from the scene, but don’t forget about it. We often just let things go but in the long run, this passive behaviour will not get you anywhere. In the moment reponses are great, but not always appropriate or realistic.


  1. Respond, don’t react- Tell the other person how you feel. My favourite tool for this is I-messages. Frame it like this:
  • I feel… (state how you feel)
  • When you.. (state the behaviour)
  • I would like… (what you would like to happen instead)

For example,  “I feel upset when you shout at me. I would like it if you could wait until you feel calm to have a discussion about things in the future.”

It is a fact that NOBODY can argue with your feelings. They are yours and they belong to you.  This way will have more of an impact that yelling back at them.


  1. Establish triggers- if it is a loved one or someone you see regularly, working out what triggers them to aggressive behaviour is useful, so that you can plan ahead for future outbursts and how you will manage it. Look out for the red flags that are typical when their undesirable behaviours are triggered.


  1. Consider your values- what do you believe in? What will you or wont you accept? How would you feel if someone behaved this way towards your grandma, your best friend or your son?


  1. Consider the future of your relationship- violence is not acceptable in any forms. Aggression can be worked with, providing the individual is accountable and takes responsibility for their behaviour. If they do not, you do not have to accept it. Think about your options as you could reduce contact, cut ties, move out, only see in certain situations and so on.


I can help


My service, The Vesta Approach, supports families affected by a loved one’s substance use. You can access confidential support from me wherever you are in the world. I will help you to get your loved one into treatment and lead a better life. I offer face to face sessions in the Manchester (UK) area or via Skype.

I also have an online therapeutic programme. Take a look at my services here

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

I have a closed Facebook Group called Vesta Confidential. If you are affected by a loved one’s substance use, come and join me.

Sign up to my mailing list here to keep up to date with Vesta news and get my free Ten Steps to Family Recovery download.


Take care,