There’s no easy answer when it comes to addiction.
If you’ve lived through a relationship that has been overshadowed by it (or you’re navigating your way through one now), then I don’t need to tell you just how devastating it is when someone you love is an addict.
Addiction is a lonely road. The world does a great job talking about the addict’s pain. From a scientific standpoint, we are understanding more and more about what causes addiction and what sustains it. Clearly, we’ve been less successful solving it.
While drug and alcohol addicts were once mercilessly cast to their fate, we now understand how boundaries, love, patience and education can serve as powerful forces that help loosen the grip of addiction. And while rehab has no guarantees, it provides very real possibilities for some.
But as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, friends, what do we do when we’re caught in that terrible purgatory of “the in between”? When our hearts are broken and our heads are spinning—when we’re stuck between just surviving and desperately hoping—how do we manage to eek out any semblance of a balanced, productive life when we’re overwhelmed by someone else’s addiction?
That’s a heavy question, and there is no easy answer.
I know this because I spent more than 30 years married to an addict. I know what it’s like to hope and pray for the addiction to end. And I know how it feels to watch a marriage fall apart when it doesn’t.
Looking back at those years, I see that my greatest struggle was always within myself. The hardest part of life with my ex-husband wasn’t trying to figure out how to deal with his drug use. Instead, it was figuring out how to be honest with myself about my role in it.
Because the emotions we have when coping with a loved one’s addiction are so similar to those of trauma or grief, it’s not hard to understand why we feel so compelled to “fix” the addict. Their addiction signals the death of our own dreams, and allowing ourselves to face that reality is not an easy task.
No matter how many self-help books you read, regardless of how much meditation you practice, and in spite of countless years in therapy and 12-step groups, I’m here to tell you: there is no easy or surefire way to help an addict.
Here’s what I do know. Before you can ever offer real and sustainable help, you have to take a hard look at three areas of your life: your reality, your pain and your willingness to make painful choices. Here’s what I mean.
1. You need to acknowledge the reality you actually have right now, and differentiate it from the one you wish you had.
Imagine for a moment: Your best-loved vase (a family heirloom) falls to the floor and crashes into a million tiny fragments. As it falls to the floor, you remember the moment your mother gave this vase to you, telling you “It has been handed down for five generations.”
Instantly, despair washes over you. There is no way this vase can be restored, and now the family legacy it stood for is gone. The heirloom will not pass to your own daughter. You feel devastated.
Then it occurs to you. Even though your mother is gone, you know what she likely would have said about this. “It’s a very precious thing, sure. But it’s just a thing. We’ll just need to find another reminder of those we loved.”
Your perception is reshaped.
Your heart is still broken. The vase is still shattered glass, but through your heartache, you begin to understand how a single moment is capable of delivering two very different realities: the reality you actually have right now and the one you wish you had.
When someone you love is consumed by addiction, your wished-for reality demands acknowledgement, like the broken vase. All of your hopes, dreams and expectations are shattered. And despair works overtime to consume you. However, when you allow yourself space to acknowledge reality as it truly is, you create the opening to find meaning, purpose and direction, in spite of the pain. And it is only here, with this clear perception, that you can truly begin to deal with the addiction in a positive, un-enabling way.Allowing yourself to acknowledge reality as it truly is creates an opening to find meaning, purpose and direction. Click To Tweet
2. Acknowledge your authentic pain
When we’re swamped by the effects of someone else’s addiction, like an uninvited guest, guilt barrages us into believing if we just give the addict what they want from us—what they say they need—it will help somehow. That the money they ask for won’t go directly into the pocket of the pusher. That the cover we provide when they can’t get out of bed after a bender will help them keep their jobs (and our financial security). That if we hide the booze or flush the substances down the toilet, we can hold back the tide. That if we bail them out of jail, pay the fine on the car that was impounded during a DUI, or loan them the money to pay the rent, it will help them by preventing them from going deeper into crisis.
Here’s where our own fight-or-flight response has kicked in, tricking us into believing that if we just work hard enough—if we just love more, if we just hang in there long enough—we can save the addict and help liberate them from addiction.
At the time, you don’t see this thinking and behavior as a distraction from your pain. You see it as the solution.
There are painful truths, waiting to be acknowledged. There are authentic pain emotions, held back: anger, confusion, despair and fear of what might happen if you choose to stop enabling the addict.
If you don’t acknowledge the truth, your shame, blame, guilt and outrage, your pity for the addict and your self-pity continue to drive the destructive cycle of co-dependence. Unwittingly, all your well-intentioned “help” is actually enabling the addiction.
You’re not only locked in a cycle that shields the addict from the consequence of their choices. You’re also prevented from seeing the reality of the broken pieces of the life you wanted. And as long as you remain a prisoner of your misperceptions, you’ll never find the space to grieve what has been lost (and what may never be regained).
This means you’ll be unable to open the door to the possibility that growth and healing can occur.
3. Acceptance is not pain-free
You’re probably familiar with the 5 Stages of Grief – an approach to understanding the stages we go through when we’re grieving. In this model, the final stage is acceptance. If you’ve gone through grief, then you know that far too often, well-meaning friends and family associate acceptance with happiness. As a result, we accept unfair and unrealistic expectations on our behavior, believing that emotions like sadness, loss and brokenness signal we’re doing something wrong.
But acceptance doesn’t really mean any of those things. I talk about dealing with grief here, and those same principles apply REGARDLESS of what you’re grieving.
So often, we get held back from making self-valuing decisions for ourselves because we get caught up in the expectations of others.
Just leave him.
It’s time she figures out how to do this on her own.
You should be there for her—no matter what.
What kind of mother would abandon her child like this?
People are always going to have opinions about what you should and shouldn’t do, but your happiness depends on listening to your own inner wisdom, a guidance that is only available to you when you accept what is painful about reality.
If we accept that our loved one is an addict, this doesn’t mean we have to live life as though that piece of our reality is all there is. Addiction is a subset of life, and we have a choice to learn how to live with the pain so we can take care of ourselves and ensure that whatever help we give actually helps.
We can choose to embrace the pain of no longer enabling the addict. That doesn’t mean we wake up every day, confident in our choice.
Acceptance doesn’t make our authentic choices pain-free. It just means that we have seen reality; we recognize our role, and we’re handling a very painful decision the best way we know how.
If you’re living life with an addict, I encourage you to seek out help. This isn’t a weight you should ever have to bear on your own. There is great support to be found in an authentic community of those who’ve been through what you’re encountering, guided by those who are trained to help you address the natural instinct to enable when the addict is someone you love.
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Take good care : )