Living with an addict
There are many things we can become addicted to. It could be alcohol or drugs, or it could be to certain behaviours such as social media, gambling online, shopping or even eating. When a member of our family becomes addicted to something, their behaviour changes beyond all recognition. They become a different person, and if you are living with them, then their addiction turns your world upside down too.
It is hard to reconcile the person we knew before, to the one who now behaves and acts without restraint. We cannot give up the hope that they will change back to the person we knew, that this is not just a temporary phase that we can help them through. During the early phases of living with addiction, are the repeated and endless cycle of hope thwarted. It is not obvious how big the problem is at first. The addict hates to hurt the people they love, they feel ashamed of their actions, and want more than anything to change. So how easy it is to get drawn into that hope, to face things together and put things right. Yet in spite of all efforts, the hopes and agreements end up being let down and we go around the painful cycle once more.
So much anger and misery is created when pacts are made and then completely upturned. Everything that has been worked towards gets given up in a moment of seeming madness. This is the second phase of living with addiction. There are just so many times we can be let down, so many times we can be hurt and forgive. Anger builds when hope falters, and we succumb to the possibility that this is never going to change. The addicts behaviour also shifts as they outwardly agree to anything, whilst secretly devising ways of maintaining their addiction. Deceit creeps in and fans the flames of the hurt and anger.
As the process evolves, the anger turns into despair and the possibility of making any lasting changes, appears to wither away. By now all the support has gone, replaced with a shrug and a turning of the back. It is easier to ignore them and not get drawn into any more pacts, any more hope. Even the anger is too much energy to expend upon a lost cause. The addict feels completely isolated and becomes distraught, begging for one more chance, promising anything. The bargaining continues. It is often at this phase of living with an addict that the need for counselling becomes apparent. Of course we respond, for a time we believe that now, at the eleventh hour, they will understand how they will lose you, lose their friends, lose their job and lose their life unless they change. Yet still it doesn’t change and everything persists.
How may we come to terms with such pernicious, self-destructive behaviour? How might we respond in ways that may be helpful, and not get ourselves drawn into the bargaining and the disappointment? I find it helpful to recognise addiction not as something alien to nature, but a part of it. Brood parasites interject their young into the nests of other species. The cuckoo is a well-known example. I find it helpful to see what happens with addiction, as a direct parallel with the behaviour of birds with a cuckoo in the nest. If we see the person we knew as the host, and the parasite as the addict that has been interjected, then the contradictions begin to make more sense.
A power struggle starts to rage in the nest, as the cuckoo seeks to meet its needs above the other chicks. Like the cuckoo, the addict is cunning, and develops quickly at the expense of the host. When we hear them say they are ashamed at their behaviour or deeply sorry for the hurt they have caused, we hear and recognise the familiar host talking. Yet belief in what they say is undermined, we have heard it all before. The parent birds do not distinguish between the growing chicks. The differences are just as odd and inexplicable.
The cuckoo is in control of the nest, just as the addict drives the behaviour. The attention of the parents is focused upon the needs of the cuckoo. How come the host is so impotent in the face of the addict? The addict exploits us through our spiritual dimension for connection and meaning. The parent birds strive to provide for their young. The object of the addiction holds a special place in the life of the addict. It provides a sense of well-being, of escape and of potency. Yet gradually, the addictive object loses its power to make the addicted sufferer feel better. They get drawn in deeper and deeper to try and re-establish the high they used to feel. The cuckoo swells and occupies ever greater shares of the nest and of the food. More time and energy of the parents is devoted to the cuckoo, and the other chicks are increasingly neglected.
By the time the third phase is reached, the desperation of the host that has lost everything, even the people who have loved and cared for them, pushes them into despair. The purpose of the Addict, like the cuckoo, is to oust the host and this is achieved by isolating them from friends and family. The other chicks starve and being weakened are pushed out of the nest. The Host starts their journey into addiction seeking to feel better and ends up being emptied, left only with remorse and guilt.
Living with an addict is so utterly confusing, just as the parent birds are unable to understand the differences among the chicks, and get drawn in more and more to tending to the cuckoo. The energy of the family becomes consumed by the addiction.
Once we recognise the twin voices with which the host and the addict speak to us, the ambivalence we feel no longer paralyses us. We would do anything for the host to help them get better, and we hate the addict that we wish would go away. We can start to encourage the host, repeatedly strengthening the connection with them, refusing to relinquish the bonds of human contact. The addiction drives us away from seeing them as a person, as an individual, and promotes only the doubt and mistrust around the addiction.
For the host to fight the addict, they need to feel the high through the human contact, which weakens the stranglehold the addictive object has on them. The addict propels us towards shifting the relationship towards treating the host like a child, that has to be monitored and we end up becoming a parent to them. Once again the addict exploits our natural responses, and draws us into being hurt and disappointed. Our expectations run high. By respecting the individual and refusing to be drawn into taking responsibility for fighting their addiction, we can manage our own expectations.
We cannot prevent a person from hurting themselves if they are determined. It is imperative, however, that the responsibility is clearly demarcated so that the host can see they need to act in the assurance of our support. The addict disempowers the host, convincing them the addictive object is the only way to get through, yet we can show them they are stronger than they believe, and with the support and encouragement of others they have a choice. Only when they start to believe this do they begin the journey to recovery.
The addict works on the spirit too, establishing mantras with distorted beliefs: “Follow me and avoid those difficult feelings; I will set you free; trust me and no one else.” Each of these beliefs needs to be challenged. The addict does not free, but binds the host. It is not trustworthy, but teaches mistrust and only temporarily hides difficult feelings never removes them.
Certainly an addict needs counselling. How does the cuckoo appear in the nest? It is not random. There is something that brings pain, and the addictive object always initially gives relief from it. By addressing the source of that pain, the host can find other ways of coping. Yet living with or around someone with an addiction is a draining challenge, and counselling can provide essential support for you too. How can you care sufficiently for another if you do not look after yourself? Having a constant and assured support behind you, gives you enough resources to provide the constant and assured support to the addicted host. The addict, unlike the cuckoo, never just flies away. Essential to managing addiction, and bringing about behavioural change, are the constant open sharing and nurturing of the human relationship. When this is strong, any relationship with an object will be less appealing. The support of family and friends is crucial if the host is to find the way back, to break the cycle and find the courage to share their vulnerability and pain.
“It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” 1
1 Chinese proverb