Loving an Addict without Losing Yourself


Understand that you cannot understand. That’s the first hurdle.

If you do not have addictive tendencies yourself, you will never truly understand what it’s like for the person who does. Sure, you can educate yourself about addiction. You can sympathize, and empathize and support and love; but you can never really understand. No more than you can understand what it is to be black when you’re white; or gay when you’re straight, can you actually understand what it means to be an addict when you are not.

My husband is an alcoholic/addict. I am not. We have been together 18 years. In that time, we have taken the journey from the depths of his addictions to his eventual long-term recovery. We have been “in the trenches” together. I’ve helped him off the floor when he was wasted, held his hand in treatment, been through family counseling, ushered our children through his recovery, and have been to more 12-step meetings than most non-addicts I know. We’ve had addicts detox in our basement. I’ve washed their clothes, cleaned their vomit, confiscated their booze or drugs, consoled, counseled and commiserated with their loved ones. My point being, if there is any non-addict on the planet who knows what it is to be addicted, it should be me. It isn’t.

I can drink half a glass of wine and leave the rest. I can socially smoke. I can recreationally smoke pot. I can take opiates for pain and not become dependent. Why can‘t they? Oh, I know the answer. Intellectually, I know the answer. There is a phenomenon of craving that takes place in the alcoholic/addict when these substances are introduced that does not occur in the non-addicted person. Simple enough, right? Yeah, right. But here’s the thing; even though I know that, I’ve never experienced that craving, nor will I ever. So, after many years of making myself crazy trying to comprehend it, I have come to the understanding that I will never understand. Which, in and of itself, is life-giving.

It’s in our nature to want to understand someone when we love them. We want to be on the same level. We want them to know that we get them. That we, above all others, know them as well as they know themselves. When you’re a non-addict who loves an addicted person, not being able to achieve this state of knowing the other can be maddening. You can read all the books, attend all the seminars, go to meetings with them, abstain from substances yourself and still you can’t say that you know what it’s like for them. It’s beyond frustrating. So, how about you give yourself a break and admit to yourself that you can’t understand…and that’s okay.

Think of it this way. If the person you love had cancer, would you beat up on yourself for being unable to feel their pain? Would you lay awake at night trying to figure out what it was like to have cancer? Of course you wouldn’t. You would be there to support them emotionally. You would let them know that you love them, no matter what. You would try to get them the best possible treatment you could find. You would help them to battle their disease in any way possible. You would be grateful when the cancer went into remission and ever watchful and guarded against its possible return. You would go to any length to be certain your loved one followed up with any on-going treatment to keep them in remission.

It’s no different with the disease of addiction. Don’t be fooled. Untreated addiction is every bit the terminal disease that cancer can be. Because addiction is a disease that centers in the mind, we discount it. We find ourselves making statements like: “No one chooses to have cancer, my loved one chose to drink or use to excess.” Bullshit, if you’ll pardon my expression. No matter how intelligent, how educated, how wealthy, how well-connected they may be, they have no choice.

Your addicted loved one has no more choice about the way they drink or use than the cancer patient has about the cancer cells growing in their body. THAT is the thing that you need to understand.

Understand that addiction is a disease and treat it as such. That’s next.

You’ve spent all this time trying to understand what it’s like to be an addict. Now that we’ve established that you need to give that up to keep your sanity, take a look at the things you CAN understand.

Understand that your loved one has a disease. Understand that their disease centers in the mind. Use the term 'brain disorder', if that's easier for you than 'disease'. Understand that they have no choice about the way they drink or use - their brains are not wired the way the average person's are. Give this disease the same psycho-emotional treatment you would if it were cancer or heart disease. If your loved one had any other life-threatening disease; you would not be ashamed, you would just help them treat it. So do that.

Understand that their disease has nothing to do with you.

You can no more cause your loved one’s addiction than you could cause them to have cancer. Let that go. Blaming yourself will do nothing other than make both of you miserable. The addict carries enough guilt and shame about their addiction to last several lifetimes. Watching you blame yourself for their struggles only amplifies that guilt and aggravates every aspect of the issues they are trying to overcome.

Understand that their disease is treatable, but not by you.

We’ve already established that you cannot understand what it’s like to be an addict. So what would make you think that you can cure one? Guess what? You CAN’T. But there are plenty of addiction specialists out there who can. Whether its in-patient treatment in a rehab center or your local AA or NA group, there are people who DO know what it is to be an addict that can help. Help your loved one seek them out with the same discernment you would use in choosing a surgeon. Most importantly, stop beating yourself up because you can’t fix them!

Understand that THEY don’t understand.

There are two phrases that no longer have any meaning for the family of an alcoholic/addict who is actively using. They are, “I’m sorry” and “I love you”.

We’ve heard it all before. They’re always sorry and they always love us when they are feeling ashamed of their behavior. Not so much when they’re in the height of their disease. Those phrases become as meaningless to us as “Have a nice day” is from the grocery clerk. But, here’s the thing; they don’t know that. How would they, really? When they were immersed in their addiction, they didn’t care and we certainly didn’t tell them. Now that they’re in treatment and/or recovery they really mean those words. But the words are still very empty to us, particularly in the early stages of healing.

Most often we don’t share the damage that has been done to us because we’re so focused on helping our addict recover. We’re also afraid, in the beginning especially, that we will say something that will send them spiraling back out of control and into their addiction. We don’t say that we’re afraid because we don’t want the healing addict to think they are hurting us. For so long, our focus has been on the addict that we tend to take our own feelings out of the equation. For a while, we had to; in order to survive the addiction ordeal. The thing you have to remember is, just like the addiction involved you, the healing involves you also. It is not only okay for you to share how you are feeling, it’s vital.

In most cases, the addict was so under the haze of their drug of choice that they have no idea of the havoc they were wreaking in the lives of their loved ones. Imagine coming out of that haze and knowing you’ve done some things that hurt the ones you love, but not knowing what those things are. You would want someone to tell you so that you could begin to make things right. So tell them; share who you have become while they were using.

I was having coffee one morning with a recovering alcoholic friend who was recuperating from surgery in our home. His wife was unwilling to let him return to theirs. He had required the surgery as the result of a five week alcohol binge that had nearly ended his life. He was lamenting to me, “I don’t understand why Carol is being so stubborn. I’ve told her how sorry I am over and over again. She seems to want to punish me.” I said to him, “Dan, ‘I’m sorry’ has no meaning for Carol.” He just stared at me. I asked him, “How many times have you said that to Carol over the years? Carol’s really tired of hearing ‘I’m sorry’ and having nothing change. Carol has absolutely no reason to believe that this time will be any different than any of the others. Your perspective may have changed, but hers hasn’t.”

There was more staring, and then he said to me with a look of complete disbelief, “That never occurred to me.” We sipped our coffee in silence for a while. Then he said quietly, “Thanks for telling me that.” My husband told me later that Dan had called his wife to tell her that he had never understood how much damage he was doing to her and that he thought he was only harming himself. You see, he didn’t understand, she didn’t tell him. So they were living in that emotional limbo with which we are all so familiar.

It wasn’t until I had that conversation with Dan that I really came to comprehend how important it is for us as family of recovering addicts to consciously separate the person we love from the person in their disease. Dan truly had no idea how used up his wife was feeling. I truly had no idea that Dan wouldn’t know that. The disease does that to us, to all of us.

When our addicts are immersed in their addictions they say and do things that they would most likely never do if they weren’t using. The thing is, for the family, even though we may know that intellectually; it doesn’t make those things hurt any less. My husband has been sober for eleven years. There all still times that I find myself filtering the things I say to him.

That filter comes from the ingrained fear that he will react the way he did when he was using; which was often very unpleasant for everyone. He won’t react now in the way that he used to. I know that in my head. But my conditioned behavior from the years of living in the disease supersedes my intellect. By taking the time to see my husband as that man he is now, which is really all that matters; I’m able to release that fear a little bit more each time it comes up. And so, the healing continues.

Take a moment to consciously see the person you love. Give yourself that gift. If you can focus on the love between you and the aspects of the person that you adore, even for a few moments, the wounds heal. The more often you can get to this place of seeing the person outside the disease and through the love you have for them, the faster the healing happens. Perhaps even more importantly, the more you focus on the love, the quicker you will find that place of peace inside yourself that we are all seeking.

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