How To Love An Addict: Balancing Compassion And Self-Protection

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Love, Self

Loving an addict is undeniably difficult. Addiction is a family disease that wreaks havoc on the lives of the addict as well as the addict's family and loved ones. The addict's primary relationship is with his or her mind-altering chemical (or compulsive behavior) at the expense of other relationships. Loved ones, which are referred to as "hostages," are relegated to second-class relationships. To successfully manage a relationship with an addict requires a balance of compassion and self-protection. This article discusses what addiction is, how families typically respond to addiction, and how to make loving an addict more effective and fulfilling.

Addiction is a Family Disease

Research suggests that addiction is a chronic and progressive disease that is often fatal if left untreated. It is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors and has a reciprocal impact on family members and other loved ones. There is no cure for addiction, but there are treatments that are effective in controlling its harmful symptoms. Some people believe that referring to addiction as a disease exonerates an addict from any accountability with regards to his or her behavior. This is not true: Just as with cancer or any other disease, the addict is held responsible for following treatment protocols such as individual and group counseling, 12-Step Program support, and medication management, when necessary. If a cancer patient refused to follow doctors' orders with regards to treatment, he or she would be held accountable as well.

Symptoms of Addiction

With addiction, there are symptoms that occur in the addicted person, and there are symptoms that occur in family members and other loved ones. The latter are referred to as "parallel processes." The addict's psychological and behavioral symptoms include obsession, loss of control, denial, and rationalization with regards to the addictive substance or behavior. Physical symptoms include increased tolerance (e.g., needing more of the substance to get the desired effect), blackouts, and withdrawal. Interpersonally, addicts tend to isolate themselves more and more as the addiction progresses.

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Each of these symptoms has a parallel symptom that occurs among family members and other loved ones. Whereas the addict becomes obsessed with his or her addictive substance or behavior, loved ones become obsessed with the addict. Part of this obsession manifests as the loved ones trying to control the addict, which parallels the addict's loss of control. Family members and loved ones may collude with the addict's denial and rationalization by making excuses for the addictive behavior. Just as the addict's tolerance for the addictive substance or behavior increases, so does loved ones' tolerance of the addict's harmful behavior. Family members and other loved ones can have "emotional blackouts" in which they lose conscious contact with how they feel; some become addicted to the adrenaline rush of managing the addict's chaotic lifestyle. Finally, just as the addict isolates from the outside world, family members tend to do so as well. The symptoms of addiction can have a devastating effect on the addict's and the family's psychological and physical health, relationships, work or school, and spirituality.

Recovery for Loved Ones

Just as family members and loved ones of an addict can fall prey to the addiction, they can also recover from it. Recovery tends to occur in stages: Active Addiction, Transition, Early Recovery, and Ongoing Recovery. During Active Addiction, family members and other loved ones attempt to help or fix the addict by controlling him or her. They often "enable" the addict, or compromise their own thoughts and feelings to accommodate the addict's harmful behavior. During this stage, relationships with the addict are often characterized by conflict and assigning blame. Sometimes, attempts are made to distance oneself from the addict, physically or emotionally. Family members and other loved ones soon realize that these strategies are ineffective, which prompts them to the second stage: Transition.

The main actions of the Transition phase for family members and other loved ones are the identification of addiction as the primary problem, and finding help. The latter usually includes involvement with 12-Step Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. At this point, denial and rationalization among family members and other loved ones typically decrease. An important aspect of this stage of recovery is for the family members or other loved ones to maintain a "self-focus" instead of the "other-focused" strategies typically used during the Active Addiction phase. As loved ones have probably learned by this point, trying to control the addict does not work.

After the Transition phase, an important process called Detachment with Love takes place. The main premise of Detachment with Love is taking care of oneself instead of others, such as the addict. For family members and other loved ones it is important to remember the 3 C's: You didn't cause the addiction, you can't control the addiction, and you can't cure the addiction. Following this mentality, family members and other loved ones can identify and assert their needs, which includes setting consequences if those needs are not respected. In this stage, individuals give up words and phrases such as "why", "what if," "should," "have to," "yes but," "try," and "can't." An important aspect of Detaching with Love is acceptance of the past. This does not mean approval; acceptance is an active form of recognition that makes room for change in the present and future. Detachment with Love is not anger, resentment, judgment, or "cutting off"; it is setting appropriate boundaries with compassion for oneself and the addict.

The next stage is Early Recovery, which continues the family members' or other loved ones' development of boundaries and self-care, but also focuses on the relationship with the addict. At this point, it is important to maintain contact with a 12-Step Program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

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Early Recovery then segues into the Ongoing Recovery stage, which includes maintenance of the gains that have already been made while increasing focus on the relationship and/or family; as well as getting involved with new or previously established interests.

Spirituality and Addiction

Spirituality is an important part of healing from addiction, both for the addict and for the family members and other loved ones. It was discovered early on that there is no cure for addiction. However, some people have been seen to recover from addiction through spirituality: when they began to relinquish their need to control all aspects of their lives and trust in what 12-Step Programs refer to as a "Higher Power." Spirituality is different from religion. Spirituality simply refers to the quality of one's relationship with oneself, others, and a "Higher Power." A "Higher Power" can include traditional religious deities, but often means a "connection" in general, whether it is with other people, nature, or anything greater than oneself; something that relieves the individual of the burden of control.

Spirituality can include reliance on a group of other people for guidance and support (such as a 12-Step fellowship). One of the more common ideas about spirituality is that it can never be fully understood and thus requires a modicum of faith. Many people struggle with the concept of spirituality and question its validity in light of the contemporary scientific era in which we live. A way to approach this skepticism is to ask oneself: "Am I the most powerful force in existence?" If one's answer is "no," then one can conclude that there must be a power greater than oneself.

Some actions which are considered spiritual include asking for and accepting help from others, communicating honestly, being vulnerable, accepting oneself and others, helping others, and living in accord with one's values. One of the basic premises for spirituality from a 12-Step Program perspective is that one does not excessively rely on oneself, but accepts help from outside sources. Some people find it difficult to rely on others and give up control. When this happens, it is important to remember the following: Addiction is a disease with mental, physical, and spiritual components. Part of the mental component is distorted thinking; the addict's thinking processes have contributed to the maintenance of the addiction. Thus, it is important to rely on thinking that comes from outside oneself to recover from this devastating family disease.