What to Expect From a Loved One in Early Recovery

what to expect three people talking and setting boundaries

What should we expect, and how should we act to support our loved one in recovery?

“What can I expect?” is a question many therapists hear from families when their loved one enters treatment. The thing is, there is no clear answer to that question. Many different statistics float around the internet on addiction recovery, but there is no ironclad rule book on what to expect from a newly sober family member. This can leave loved ones feeling hopeless and alone. Is recovery really a lifelong challenge? What does it mean when therapists say addiction is a family disease? How should we act to support our loved one in recovery?


What to Expect from Early Recovery

The brain does a lot of healing in the first few years of recovery. Indeed, in the first 90 days of recovery, the brain begins to make significant repairs. During addiction, the frontal cortex (the decision part of the brain) turns off. This is why our family member with a substance use disorder (SUD) makes poor decisions at this time. They aren’t thinking clearly. But at 90 days (give or take a few days), the frontal cortex turns back “on.” This means that our family members are starting to think a little clearly and can begin making better decisions. They won’t be able to think completely clearly at this time, but recovery shows promising signs.


Yes, it can take years…

In the first two years of recovery, your family member might have symptoms of PAWS (Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome). It usually takes an average of two years for those symptoms to pass. Many of the PAWS symptoms are troubling, and family members may even question if their loved one has relapsed. PAWS symptoms can be put into six categories:

  • The inability to think clearly
  • Lapses in memory
  • Emotional overreactions or numbness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Physical coordination problems (which can be the most troubling)
  • And stress sensitivity.


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So, how can we help, and what should we expect?

Firstly, we should expect open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable communication. In the Family Program at Sanford Behavioral Health (Sanford), loved ones work on assertive communication. In treatment at Sanford, clients learn the same thing. Communication is key to any relationship, and it doesn’t stop when loved ones enter treatment. I argue it starts when they enter treatment! However, it can be hard to hear the honest communication that comes from our loved ones in treatment, even though it is vital to family healing.


Loved ones in treatment may struggle to communicate their feelings or experiences. It is important as family members to encourage communication but understand that sometimes our loved ones need space to process feelings. In the Family Program, we stress communication and educate loved ones on how to provide unwavering support. Carving out time to talk undistractedly can go a long way to repair families, futures and lives.


Celebrate and acknowledge the small steps forward.

Small steps might include attending 12-step meetings, continued counseling, and demonstrating resilience. Recognizing, acknowledging, and celebrating those small steps forward can boost our loved one’s confidence and motivation. It will help them move forward in their recovery (even in the most challenging times).


We must accept relapse as an opportunity for growth.

Relapse?! The dreaded experience that many people go through? Look at it as an opportunity to grow?! Yes, lapses happen. That doesn’t mean it is always a part of our loved one’s recovery. But changing our viewpoint on relapse = failure can be very important for helping our loved ones continue on their recovery path. During the Family Program, we help members plan for the possibility of a lapse and encourage them to motivate loved ones to get back up and continue recovery. Planning is prevention. Relapse does not define a person’s recovery and, therefore, should not be viewed as a failure.


Balance hope with realism.

Hope can be a powerful motivator, but it is essential to strike a balance between realism and hope. Understanding that recovery takes time and setbacks can and do occur. Try to stay hopeful and be realistic about our expectations. Speaking of setbacks, be prepared for them. Recovery is not a linear process, and setbacks are a natural part of the journey. When they happen, offer support and encouragement and remind your loved one of their progress.


Progress takes time.

Recovery isn’t an overnight process. Just like our loved one’s addiction didn’t happen overnight, their recovery won’t happen overnight either. It is essential to understand there will be ups and downs; significant changes may take time to manifest. Patience is the key to perseverance!



Recovery is an individual process.

It can be common to look at other people’s progress and compare their progress to our loved one’s progress. That can be harmful to family recovery.  Everyone’s journey and recovery are unique to them! Sometimes, our loved ones find 12-step meetings beneficial, while others don’t. Finding what works for them is important in their recovery, whether it is yoga, nature walks, church groups, or knitting!  Avoid measuring progress by external factors; focus on your loved one’s personal growth and efforts.


There will be difficult emotions.

Recovery can evoke negative emotions for both you and your loved one. It is important that you learn to manage your emotions, too. Addiction recovery is a challenging process for everyone.  Common emotions for our loved ones to feel during early recovery are vulnerability, guilt, shame, anger, or anxiety. It helps to be prepared for these emotional challenges and fluctuations. In the Sanford Family Program, we teach family members to approach these fluctuations with empathy and understanding.


Boundaries are healthy for both you and your loved one.

Family members may feel that their loved one in recovery has lost their trust and should be restricted and checked on regularly.  But boundaries are healthy for everyone in the family system. Families should respect the needs of their loved one’s privacy, personal space, and any other boundaries they desire. Loved ones are going through challenges, but boundaries are important for every member of the family.


The vital role of self-care.

Lastly, self-care is crucial to the person in recovery and every member of their support team. Supporting our loved ones can be an emotionally taxing experience. Family members must engage in self-care practices that rejuvenate and nurture their emotional health. Taking care of yourself can make you a strong pillar of support for your loved one. Prioritize your well-being and seek support when needed. Support can be found in your family and friends, support groups, and individual therapy. When you are taking care of yourself, you are better able to navigate the challenges you and your loved one face!


If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, eating disorders, or co-occurring mental health conditions, don’t wait to change your life – click the link below to speak with an admissions specialist today. 

Alexis Sumner has clinical experience in the PHP and IOP as a primary therapist and case manager. Alexis also facilitates and manages groups in the Sanford Family Program. She has a passion for helping clients on their road to recovery as well as helping families along the way. You can reach Alexis with questions about the Sanford Behavioral Health Family Program for substance use disorders at asumner@sanfordhouse.com.