“People who have never had an addiction don’t understand how hard it can be.” –Payne Stewart
Working in a methadone clinic over the past several years has given me a unique perspective on addiction. I have been privileged to hear heartbreaking stories of addiction and witnessed firsthand the devastating effects it has on the entire family. Loving someone struggling with addiction is perhaps one of the hardest things there is to do. The person that you once loved seems to be replaced by a foreign entity. It is hard to know who you are talking to. The addiction masquerades as the loved one and it is unbearable to discover that the person you once knew is unreachable. So, what do you do if you love someone who is suffering from addiction?
First, know that the person in addiction is not the person you love. I always think of us as having different parts that take over in different situations. There are loving and gentle parts, as well as angry and demanding parts. There is a different part of me in control when I’m at work then when I’m at home with my children. When someone is struggling with addiction, it is the addict part that has taken control and seals off the other parts. Sometimes we can get glimpses of the real person, but during active addiction it is difficult to know if you are talking to the addict part or breaking through to your loved one. Be cautious and discerning when talking to your loved one. Remember that the lies and manipulative behaviors are the addict part which has taken control and are not behaviors the person you love would do.
Second, know that the person you love did not intend to become addicted. There is not a single client that I have worked with that told me they wanted to become addicted to heroin. Of course, they made an initial choice to try it, but once the addiction took hold, they lost all power to choose. This is why addiction is considered a disease. The urge and compulsion to use is so strong that the choice to stop is blocked. Know that if addiction were just a matter of willpower, there would be far fewer people suffering. It takes support and understanding to break through addiction. It is complex and there are no easy answers or solutions.
Third, understand that the person in addiction is suffering, too. Addiction creates a downward spiral. There is usually a point when the person in addiction decides that they want to stop. They tell themselves that they are going to stop, but the compulsion becomes so strong that they can’t control it. After they use they feel guilty about it and the pain becomes stronger. The stronger the pain, the stronger the compulsion to use. The spiral continues until they hit the preverbal ‘rock bottom’ and seek help or treatment of some kind.
Fourth, don’t give up. Loving someone struggling with addiction is painful. There is no denying that, but when the person hits their ‘rock bottom’ they need love and support in order to heal. Set extremely firm boundaries. Enabling and making excuses for the person in addiction does not help them. They need to experience the consequences of their behavior choices. This is extremely difficult to accept because death is a very real possible consequence. Setting boundaries does not mean withholding love and support from them. Trust has to be earned back. It is a slow process, but don’t give up on them! Get family counseling to help the entire family heal and open the lines of communication back up.
Finally, take care of yourself. Loving someone with an addiction is consuming and feels helpless. You cannot stop or control a loved one’s addiction. The person in addiction is the only one who has that power. The more worn down you become, the less helpful it is for everyone. Find your own hobbies, attend Al-Anon meetings, spend time in nature or laugh with friends. It is not selfish to take care of your own needs. By practicing your own self-care, you are able to help the family heal and move through the recovery process. Your family deserves the best you can give, which only comes when you take care of yourself.
The journey of addiction is never easy. It is a dark chapter for many families, but it doesn’t have to be the whole book. You, as a family, get to write the rest of the story. It can have a happy ending.