When someone you care about uses drugs—and this includes excessive alcohol use—it can wreak havoc in your relationship and in your life. After all, if you care about this person, you are enmeshed with him or her mentally and emotionally. You may be physically bonded through blood, marriage or living together, and your finances may be entangled with this person’s as well. What is more, if someone close to you is using, any negative repercussions he or she experiences cannot help but resonate in your life too.
Addiction is defined by experts as any behavior that a person keeps repeating in spite of strong negative consequences. It doesn’t matter if the substance is not considered addictive in the classic sense (the classic sense being the person suffers intense physical withdrawal symptoms if he or she doesn’t ingest the substance). If the person keeps using a substance in spite of negative consequences, he or she is in the thrall of an addiction.
A simple example is a food addiction. Food is not usually considered an addictive substance, and it is far from illegal (as long as you pay for it). Yet food addiction can lead to threatened health, social rejection, lowered self-esteem, shorter life expectancy and job loss. If someone you love keeps using a substance in spite of mounting negative consequences, he or she is addicted and needs help.
However, as anyone knows who has dealt with an addict, getting the person to admit he or she needs help is like climbing a mountain with a broken foot. It is difficult in the extreme. The person may or may not ever seek help. That is why you have to live your life so as to minimize the impact of the addiction on your mind, heart and space as much as possible.
This requires a certain amount of detachment. It may even involve being “cruel to be kind” as Shakespeare put it. You may have to ask the person to leave the premises of your home if the chemicals have altered the person’s personality so much that he or she becomes verbally or physically abusive. It may involve refusing to help with legal fines incurred as a result of the addiction or refusing to make excuses to the addict’s boss any more when the addict misses work.
Oddly enough, when you stop trying to shield the other person from the consequences of his or her actions, you are actually helping in the biggest possible way. According to experts, including the venerable Alcoholics Anonymous and its companion program, Al-Anon (for friends and relatives of alcoholics), the most merciful thing to do sometimes is to let the other person “hit bottom”—that is, come to place where he or she must face the fact of how much havoc the addiction is wreaking.
It is not easy to stop shielding an addict from consequences. After all, you love this person. Every consequence that hits his or her life has impact on you too. You spend your time anguishing over his or her legal, financial, emotional and relational losses. You may be experiencing some of those losses yourself if you tried to bail the person out in either a figurative or literal sense—from covering up the addiction with lies to protect the person from loss of reputation, to dealing with addict-inflicted damages to vehicles or home, to literally putting up bail money when the addict runs afoul of the law. Resonating with consequences is part and parcel of loving an addict. Addiction takes its toll on everyone who cares about the addict.
That is why you must shield yourself as much or even more than you shield the addict. Al-Anon recommends “detaching with love.” Detaching with love means that we continue to hope for the person, pray for the person, support the person in any positive ways we can without enabling the addiction, and we react as impartially and impersonally as we can to bad situations. We may be very sorry about the consequences the addict must face, but, in the end, it is the addict, not us, who must face them. Our role is to remain as detached as possible while continuing to hope for better outcomes for the addict.
It is easier to detach if we realize that addiction is an illness, not a moral issue. Seeing addiction as a medical problem helps cut down some of our emotional reactions. It also helps us to forgive the addict his or her objectionable and hurtful behaviors, remembering that it is the chemically-induced illness that is accusing us, blaming us, telling us everything is our fault and the addict’s life would be fine if we were only a better spouse, parent, friend, sibling, or child. We can be impartial and unemotional if we realize that this is not really our loved one talking—it is our loved one with his or her personality and consciousness altered into sickness by chemical substances.
Detaching with love is a kind of emotional martial art, like jiu-jitsu, that you use to sidestep blows: “No, I can’t come pick you up at the bar. It’s two a.m., and I have to go to work in the morning. Please don’t call again tonight. Hope you find a ride. Bye.” As often as not, thrown on his or her own resources, the addict will find a way. He or she is not helpless. Many addicts are enormously sensitive, intelligent, resourceful and clever people. Learning to do things for him- or herself will fill the addict with pride and help offset the shame, guilt and humiliation he or she is feeling deep inside over the addiction.
“Get thee to a nunnery,” Hamlet famously told Ophelia. If you love an addict, you can take Hamlet’s advice with a few minor changes: “Get thee to an Al-Anon meeting!” This self-help Twelve Step support group helps school a person in loving detachment, provides a gentle pool of strength, and helps the person to find personal happiness whether the addict is still using or not. Al-Anon meetings are everywhere, including in many foreign countries. Their readings, sharing, concepts and precepts have helped thousands of people cope with a loved one’s addiction. Although Al-Anon started out as a companion program to Alcoholics Anonymous, people who are suffering from a loved one’s addictions to other substances are welcomed as well. Therapists everywhere recommend this free-for-the-taking help as one of the best possible programs for those whose lives are impacted by the addiction of someone they love.
In science, there is a weather effect called “The Butterfly Effect.” The world’s weather systems are so intricately intertwined that, if a butterfly flutters its wings in the Amazon, it can affect the weather in India. You can have a “butterfly effect” on your addicted loved one. With each step toward loving detachment, each step toward encouraging the other to take responsibility for his or her life, each boundary firmly but dispassionately drawn, you are helping the addict to change by changing yourself. By changing yourself, you become conducive to the moment when the addict says, “I love you and I want to change. Where do you think I should go to find help?”
Loving yourself through this difficult time period is a way to love the addict. There is a light at the end of the tunnel of addiction. After all, the addict has one of the greatest benefits and hopes for change a person can have: he or she has you.
This article is intended to convey general educational information and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional healthcare advice.