The Family Connection

Let’s All Jump on the Recovery Bus

How very challenging it is to honor and respect the slow and steady growth of families who are working on recovery. Moving toward recovery can come at different times and stages for various family members - one or two may start on the recovery journey while others follow slowly, at times avoiding the process or trying different approaches. Each recovery journey is unique to each individual family. 

During the pandemic I had the privilege of working with a family of four. They were concerned about their mom and ex-spouse's recent lapse back into drinking. Each of these family members participated in three counseling sessions. The eldest daughter requested an extra session by herself. Her wish was to describe the situation from her perspective and what action she wanted to take on behalf of her mother. She was visibly shaken and afraid for her mom as well as her own toddler who her mother was entrusted to care for on the day that she relapsed. Upon realizing her mother was drinking again, she contacted her siblings and her father who was a concerned ex-husband. This action set in motion a move to recovery for the whole family.

The daughter was a powerful source for change as she invited the other members to attend the counseling sessions, read the informational readings and establish an agreeable timeframe. During our one-on-one session, I supported the skills she already displayed, gave her encouragement and let her know how courageous she was to take this first step.  She spoke of her anger. I witnessed her sadness and fear beneath the anger and processed that with her. One small step at a time.

To give too much feedback or information in the beginning can be overwhelming. Slow steady progress is possible. The rules of Family Addiction - Don't Talk, Don't Trust, Don't Feel - are usually in place solidly. The move from those set of rules to opening and changing the environment in the family to Trust, Talk, Feel and Recover requires patience.

What exactly are we asking them to recover from? What pain are they in? We can ask the following directly of each family member:

What is your pain?  

The answer to this is often drastically different for each member of the family. Each pain is to be witnessed with respect with no hurry to "diagnose" or re-organize them in any way. Allow space for a sacred pause and pay attention to each member as we simply listen and honour their experience.

I ask counselors-in-training the following question - have you done your own family-of-origin work? If the answer is "no", it is often reflected during supervision while they discuss the challenges of working with a family. It is common to hear the following comments:

"Oh, she doesn't want to change."

"They're not ready yet."

"This family is so sick."

Looking for the gold, being empathic without patronizing is critical.

Each family member had a different perspective as well as different emotional charges toward their loved one and her relapse.  There wasn't anything "wrong" or "pathological" or "sick" about any of them. There is no wrong way - perhaps unskilled at times but not wrong.  Honoring the strengths of the family, the family heritage, the family norms and other approaches invites members into a circle of trust.

Once the trust is built, building on the initial session, the rest of the sessions included skill building. This process is prefaced by reminding them that communication and love in a family is not based on good will but on skill.  

Although my training and expertise is as an experiential therapist on the original ACOA family model created by Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, I've added, removed and developed an even more personal model that honors the family as a growing community of people. Openness to change and develop practices is vital when working with multi-cultural and multi-generational families.

While serving as the Director of the Family Program at the Betty Ford Center, our staff not only worked as a team but in many ways modeled a Family approach in their delivery of services to families. They were able to be authentic and down to earth as they used their skills in a Gestalt approach, guiding the whole family and not just the identified patient. The entire family unit was viewed as in need of support, skill building and a new language of love, tolerance and support.  

Learning to Talk, Trust, Feel and Change one step at a time can be exhilarating!

Below are a few examples of Skill Building Formulas for practice:

Practice of Feeling Formula:

I feel (felt)_______

When you (name the behavior) _______

Because (No Blame, no shame, a simple message of impact of behavior on you) ______

And I wish (A desire for change and a boundary- not a demand) __________

Each person can be heard and listened to.


Janet Hurley's Feedback Wheel. (A form of speaking that helps organize thoughts and more skillfully helps a family member to speak up when they are hurt.)

  1. This is what I recollect happened __(thus acknowledging the person's perspective)
  2. This is what I made up about it ____(another way the behavior, etc was received)
  3. This is what I felt_____________________(from the heart)
  4. This would help me feel better _(a different action, behavior, response requested)

Expressing hope for the family as they practice new skills is an important ingredient in being the witness to their growth and celebrating with them.   

Below is an example of an experiential game that is inclusive, fun and allows the therapist/counselor to facilitate and witness the collective family and how they communicate:


Cooperative Game example: Just Five Things 

One member sits in a chair.

Without speaking the rest of the family observes carefully the family member in the chair - noticing everything about them.

Then the members turn around while the family member in the chair changes 5 things about themself. Encourage family to talk loudly, sing, whistle, make noises while the changes are being made.

When the chair member is ready and indicates to the Facilitator the whole family turns around to observe again.  Emphasize that no one is the leader, everyone cooperates and talks over what they see as changes made with the chair member SAYING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. They must all agree without overpowering each other even if one of them or two think the answer might not be correct. Once a decision has been made and agreed upon by EVERYONE, one person says out loud the 5 things they see affirmative nod needed at all by the chair member until all 5 guesses are spoken.  The chair member says “yay” or “nay” to what they cooperatively have guessed as changes.

It's easy, fun, and can lead to a keen and non-judgmental view of family dynamics.

Jumping on the Family Bus of Recovery can be bumpy, treacherous, joyful, meaningful, sweaty, and filled with discoveries. Oh yes, you must be a brave soul to be the witness for Family Recovery, hold the mantle of compassion and be honest about the ways that work or don't work.  Most importantly, don't forget to celebrate with them - they are amazing journeyers!   

New book by Mary Gordon coming out in the Fall/Winter of 2022: 

Stepping Out: Moving Through the 12 Steps (Authentic Movement Model) A Guide for Therapists, Counselors and Facilitators 


Mary McGraw Gordon, MA, LAADC, ICAADC

Founder and Consultant at Inner Direction Recovery

Former Director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Family and Outpatient Programs



Peggy McGillicuddy, MEd

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