My second time in rehab everything changed. For starters, the scenic lodge tucked into snowy Minnesotan woods of my first treatment experience had been replaced with the stark locked-down wing of a psych hospital.

More importantly, my family had collectively made a decision to change the way they supported me. In the past, they had been quick to offer money to help me deal with the consequences my using brought. Whether it was to help pay the rent I had fallen months behind on or to purchase a car that I “needed” to get to meetings.

Toward the end of my second week inpatient, my Counselor had scheduled a family session. When my parents walked in, I could tell that something had shifted although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

As the session progressed, my parents produced a letter that they had written together and read it aloud to me. It explained that things between us were going to look different moving forward. Although they still loved me deeply and were going to continue to provide emotional support, they were now establishing some firm boundaries to insulate them from the steady stream of chaos my addiction was raining down on everyone close to me. Part of this “new way” was there was to be no more financial bailing me out.

My initial response was that of shock; it felt like my world was caving in around me. My safety net was being taken away. How could they do this to me?

After they were done reading to me, they asked that I return my key to their suburban home. I would no longer be able to drop by unannounced. I would be expected to call before I visited to make sure that they wanted to see me. I pulled the key off my key chain and placed it in my father’s hand. My memory flooded with instances where I had disrespected them and their home while I was using. As unhappy as this made me, I knew in my heart that their demand was a reasonable one.

What I didn’t know at the time was that my parents had begun to work their own Twelve Step program. They were learning about the family disease of addiction and to put their well-being first.

When I was eventually released from treatment, I committed to the CMA program seriously. I attended daily CMA meetings and began working the Twelve Steps with my sponsor. I practiced a new level of honesty. I also moved into sober housing. I wish I could say that this was the end of my using but I underestimated the cunning, baffling, and powerful nature of my disease.

Upon moving out of my sober house, I relapsed and struggled for six months to regain my footing, get honest, and surrender again.

Once I did, everything began to fall into place. I was completely relieved of the desire to use. I built meaningful relationships both in and outside of our Fellowship. I took on service positions and learned to practice gratitude in all my interactions.

I slowly began to rebuild the relationship with my parents. At first, visits were incredibly strained. But every time I showed up on-time for a visit or made another financial amends payment things got a little easier. I knew that rebuilding trust was going to be a slow process.

  • I certainly hadn’t tanked it overnight.

As I celebrated sober anniversaries . . . one year, then two and three . . . our relationship continued to improve. I was finally able to be the son I always wanted to be and do more than take from my family. I was becoming an active member of the family and I was grateful for this new chance my sobriety allowed.

Every time I arrived at my parent’s house and had to ring their doorbell, I was reminded of my key that they had taken away. I started to feel that with a few years of sobriety under my belt, I deserved to be rewarded with the return of my own key. The missing key began to take on great significance in my mind. Why, if I had already made my Ninth Step amends and continued to work a solid program, had I not been rewarded in the way I believed I deserved. The story I told myself was that until the key was returned to me, it was clear that my parents didn’t have faith in my sobriety.

This obsession became a regular point of conversation with both my Sponsor and my Therapist. How was I going to ask my Mom and Dad to return the key to me? Did they know how important it was to me? Could they possibly know how painful it was for me to feel like they weren’t acknowledging all the hard work I had put into maintaining my sobriety? How would I frame the conversation to still demonstrate my gratitude for how far our relationship had come?

Each discussion always ended up with us agreeing that perhaps I should wait a little longer. Perhaps I could sit a little longer with my discomfort. I was reminded that things don’t always happen on my schedule. Part of turning my will over to my Higher Power was an agreement that my actions are now governed by spiritual principles. Honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, gratitude, and service to others guide me and I leave the outcome up to HP.

What my parents think of my recovery is none of my business. I felt solid in my continued spiritual growth and that knowledge would have to be enough for me, key or no key.

As years passed, things with my parents continued to improve. My active addiction faded further and further into the rear-view mirror. My Father and I steadily developed a new bond and easygoing relationship that allowed for light carefree times together as well as deeply intimate conversations and emotional risk. Things with my Mother were slower to come around as she was more wary to trust me after being disappointed countless times in the past. I was reminded regularly that there is no substitute for time and patience when we are rebuilding relationships.

Midway into my fifth year of sobriety I turned 46 years old. I met my parents Downtown Chicago at one of my favorite seafood restaurants to celebrate my birthday. There was shrimp, tuna steak, and wonderful conversation, three of my favorite things! After dinner, my parents presented me with a wrapped box. I knew what was inside before I even opened it. It was going to be a navy-blue crew neck sweater . . . much like the one they gave me last year and the year before. I thanked them profusely, trying not to let on how unsurprising the gift was. My Dad asked me to look again inside the box. There I found a much smaller box, beautifully wrapped. From it I pulled a typed note:

Dear Son:

Sometimes a key isn’t just a key. There are times, like this, when it is a symbol of trust, achievement, and celebration. Here is a toast to your continued commitment to sobriety and hard work. We share, with pride, in your continued accomplishments.

With love, Mom and Dad

Inside the box, nestled beneath tissue paper was a shiny new key. I wish there had been a photographer present to capture that moment: me smiling ear to ear with tears of joy flowing down my cheeks, my parents beaming with pride, me struggling to find words that captured the gratitude I was feeling.

Today, as I celebrate eight years of continuous sobriety, I look back at this time. I still believe that I could have convinced my parents to have given me that key earlier. I can be pretty darn persuasive.

I’m so glad I didn’t. We are promised in Recovery that we will know how to handle situations that used to baffle us. For me this meant learning to sit with discomfort. I trust in my recovery, and more importantly, in my Higher Power. More will always be revealed.