3 Steps You Unknowingly Take When Someone You Love Is An Addict

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You can help them AND help yourself.

If someone you love is an addict, you probably spend a lot of time blaming yourself. That's the thing about the disease of addiction—it envelops the lives of at least two people. And both of you walk through fire to get well.

Parents, children, and lovers ask haunting questions: What did I do wrong? What did I do to cause this? To make him use this time? What can I do now to get her to stop using? Here are 3 other things we do in trying to help the one we love as they struggle with addiction: 

1. We have ah-ha! moments.

The truth is, (especially if you're a parent) you probably did do something "wrong" at some point in your relationships with the addict. As loving as we want to seem, we all make mistakes in relationships ... all of us! We get angry, yell, don't pay enough attention, or listen well enough.

But when addiction shows up, we go over those moments with a fine-tooth comb. We think, if only I had been some other way or done something else. We then have the proverbial ah-ha! moment—I know what it is that caused this addiction problem!

Then we try to contact the addict we love, have a heart to heart, or say we're sorry. We hope that our confession and apology (our owning of their problem) will create change, meaning he'll finally stay sober. Eventually, if we're lucky, we come face to face with a harsh truth that, as much as we love this other person, we actually don't have the power to change him or her. 

2. Something deep changes within us.

Face to face? No, it's the wrong metaphor because at a surface level we've known this truth all along. Or, at least pretended to.

We've gone to meetings or talked to friends or family, and gone over countless interactions. Sometimes, we've talked about how right our behavior was. Sometimes, we've talked about what we did wrong. Either way, the addiction didn't stop. We pretended to know it wouldn't.

But after enough self-examination and heartache on our part—after enough pain and tears, maybe after enough periods of sobriety and relapse on the addict's part—the sobering and humbling truth seeps more deeply into us.

The deepest parts of us begin to accept that we can't change this other person who we love. And when that truth sinks in deeply enough, we can begin to live differently in the present.

3. We learn to have compassion for ourselves.

We love with compassion for him/her and for ourselves — with greater independence.

It's not that we don't care — it's that we know we can't really control the addict we love. We can't force him or her to change; we can only do that for ourselves and our own lives.

As a psychotherapist, I've seen many people blame themselves (even if their children), and I've seen many couples blame each other. Marriages split apart, love between spouses die over this, and still the addict uses ... or gets sober and relapses.

The truth seems so obvious and so hard — the only person we can control and change is ourselves. Addictions specialists say that once the family and the enablers change, there is a better chance that the addict will, too.

Don't minimize behavior; set clear boundaries. Don't make empty threats.

Long-time addictions specialists like Melody Beattie talks about that, and so does the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and William Moyers.

But none of those things offer a promise or a certainty.

The humbling and potentially freeing truth is that both you and the addict you love deserve compassion, but you each have to take responsibility.

Others can help if you ask. Others can love, but only you can take possession of yourself and change the way you handle the desperate feelings you sometimes have—the pain, guilt, and aloneness.

You may feel angry as hell, but does it really make any sense to scream at the addict? Or to cry to him? Or beg? He's having enough trouble with his own feelings. So, you may need to scream, cry, and beg (or pray), but don't direct these feelings at the addict you love.

Find someone to talk to. Go to a Nar-Anon meeting. You must find a new way of handling your feelings and the addict has to do the same. We each need relationships and self-responsibility. It's not one or the other.

That is the awful and freeing lesson addiction can teach us. That is the fire we have to go through when we love an addict.

Carol Freund, a NJ psychotherapist, helps individuals and couples handle their emotions in healthier ways. Email her: carol@carolfreund.com.


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