How to love an addict
This is about how to love an addict who happens to be your child, parent, partner or friend.
For people supporting their loved ones it is hardly ever a question ‘whether to love them’. It is more a question of how to love them to make them stop drinking, smoking, snorting and making life hell for everyone.
You will do absolutely anything to help your ‘addicted other’. You may also notice that there is a lot of help for them if only they wanted to accept it, but not much support and understanding for you – the ‘affected other’.
For the past however many years you have supported them to the best of your ability by looking after their needs.
You were giving your children money, making sure they had eaten and even bailing them out of trouble. You trusted your partner and wanted the best for her/him, worried when they were unwell and took over their duties to make things better. You put your life on hold to be there for your Mum, make sure she holds her job, and social services are kept at bay.
Now, that your loved ones are officially ‘addicts’, ‘substance dependent’, ‘problematic users’, things have changed overnight.
What you thought until now was unconditional love, suddenly is being called ‘enabling’ or ‘colluding’ and you are now labelled ‘co-dependent’.
You are told to stop giving them money. To stop asking about when and where. To stop allowing them to stay at home. To stop protecting them from their school teachers, work bosses, dodgy boyfriends. You are told you should stop doing all those things that you understood to be gestures of love and care, and you know that just at this moment it is impossible not to. Or rather - possible but at a price of you not sleeping, worrying and becoming ill as well.
You desperately want to know what is this one thing that you need to say or do, to make them understand that using is not good for them and for the family. You are constantly worrying, thinking and re-thinking what you have said or not said. You are worrying because you are told that you are the reason they drank in the first place, that your nagging makes things worse, that you are not allowed to talk or ask about their using… and most of the help around ends up in giving you yet another suggestion, yet another glimpse of hope that this time it just might work.
Here are some different suggestions: not how to make them stop, but how to look at things differently, which may allow you to accept the reality of addiction and honour your own need of sanity.
It is not personal
How many times did you think (and say it out loud) – ‘if you cared (loved) me (us) you wouldn’t drink (use drugs)’?
Addiction is not personal, at least not to you. It is very personal to the addict, it holds them by the throat, but it doesn’t really know that you exist. So it’s even less than not caring…
Your family member or friend may still deeply care and love you, but when they are in the grip of addiction they are unable to bring those thoughts and feelings to the fore. They may desperately try to make things add up in their lucid moments – ‘yes it is possible to be a good Dad and get drunk every evening’ - and get even more upset when it doesn’t work. They then use again to mute the guilt. Not because they don’t love you, but because they can’t stand the tension of this incongruence.
Also, most addicts, at least those who acknowledge the problem, are honest when they swear to you that they want to stop. The problem is not lack of honesty, but of perseverance. Their resolve lasts only as long as the road to the first off license or whatever is the first trigger for craving, so that is not personal either.
It doesn’t matter what you say or don’t say, do or don’t do
They use/drink not because you ‘made them’ but because they wanted to (will power is a controversial subject in addiction; for the purpose of this argument we just need to acknowledge that ‘wanting’ of an addict to use is not like your ‘wanting’ to have a Mars bar).
They will use any excuse to justify their drinking or smoking drugs. The reality is, whether you are sitting and watching or running around screaming and ‘rubbing their face in the truth’, the effect is just the same – if they decide to use, they do. Only that in the latter scenario you are more exhausted, depleted, frustrated, discouraged or fed up and feeling that it is you who messed up, said the wrong thing or made them upset.
It is a difficult truth to accept that it doesn’t matter what you do, because it means ultimately that you have no control and have to just let things happen. ‘How is it possible? How can I just watch my son/mother drinking themselves to death and do nothing to help?’
There are two traditional views on how to approach the loved one’s addiction – seemingly opposing each other, but in fact being two sides of the same coin.
View one – Families are tools in recovery
‘You are the only person who cares about the user, know them better than anyone else therefore you need to be involved in their treatment and motivate them to stop or reduce their substance use.‘
This view is very amenable to the ears of any family member around addiction, because it gives them the sense of purpose, hope, recognition and control. It feeds of your natural need to gain control over the chaotic situation and draws you more into the illusion that it is in your power to change your loved one. Unfortunately all those feelings may be short lived if addiction continues, and sooner or later the feeling of powerlessness may creep in.
View two – Tough love
‘Since the user is the only one who can help themselves, you must employ tough love – don’t enable, collude and in any way make their using more comfortable.’
Although the first part is true, the second part about how to deal with it may be a trap:
- You are doing the same thing as in a view one – keeping your attention focused on the addict and on what you mustn’t do – as opposed to what you must do.
- You may be manipulated to behave in a way which deep down feels wrong, and makes you feel worse about yourself (yes you didn’t let them stay at home, but now you are even more anxious and can’t sleep, sick with worrying what might happen).
The result of following two views is the same – addiction is still in the centre of your world and you adjust your actions around it. You always think about what to do or not do in the context of them, never yourself.
The third view proposed here comes from a slightly different angle and at first glance it may look like you are doing exactly the same things as in either of the views above.
View three – Self-compassion
In this view you can do whatever you like. On one condition though - whatever you do, the intention is to make you feel better. You, not the addict. This is the shift which ultimately brings a change within relationships with ‘addicted others’.
‘What does it mean feel better? Will I not become just like them? Egotistic and self-centred?’ – not if we look at this concept more deeply.
Addicts’ actions are driven by addiction and its whims. Your actions have to come from the place of attending to a well thought through personal meaning, and values that connect to it.
If your values and meanings are lost or violated by addiction (i.e. you despise dishonesty, yet you have to lie to family and friends to cover up the addicts actions), you become resentful. Your love for the addict becomes more difficult, tainted by resentment and a sense of being a victim. If, on the other hand, you preserve yourself, your values and your moral code, you will still be able to offer your love as a generous gift, not contingent on them ‘behaving’.
So if you feel angry and upset about the behaviour – say it. But not with a hope that it will bring change in them or with a hope for some sense of revenge. Say it because of your need for being heard and the need for self-respect.
If you need to make another phone call or text to check if they are ok – do so, but acknowledge that the reason is to alleviate your anxiety, or give you some illusion of control, which at the moment you still need just to be able to sleep tonight.
Remember though, it will not make much difference to addiction, even if it adds a drop of guilt to the drink.
You may learn with time how to love them differently, but it has to happen in your own time. It may be a small thing that feels like a massive shift, when for example you decide that you have the right not to ask your loved one whether they did or didn’t use, accepting that your question doesn’t change reality, but does affect your sense of peace, which is important for you, your job and your other family members.
Paradoxically, the more you allow yourself to look after your well-being the more space you will be able to give your loved one (they may not like it!) and the better you will feel about yourself in this equation of madness and pain drawn by addiction.
The only person you can control is yourself, and the only responsibility you have is to keep yourself healthy and strong.
A good reason to consider is that you can be there to pick them up when they are ready to stop. When it happens, the realisation that you are doing well may bring a great sense of relief for a recovering addict counting their losses and scanning the damages of addiction..
But most importantly, by keeping yourself away from resentment and hatred, you are more likely to preserve a sense of love for them and compassion towards their suffering.
And just to finish, the third suggestion:
Whatever you hear or read – trust your instinct and integrity first.
Regardless of all the good advice around, it is you who has to wake up, live and love them, and that in itself is a noble act of human kindness and compassion.
Hopefully you will now remember to offer some of those gifts to yourself.
‘The best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.’
HH. Dalai Lama
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About Anna Jezuita
Anna is a BACP accredited counsellor providing a range of services in South West London and via Skype.
She uses person centred approach, and CBT based acceptance and commitment therapy and mindfulness based cognitive therapy to help with the wide range of issues from depression, addiction, low self-esteem to relationship troubles.