Frightened. Confused. Angry. These are just some of the things you might feel watching a loved one become consumed by addiction. So how do you love somebody when they’re hell-bent on destroying themselves? How do you care about someone you hardly recognize anymore? Obviously, every situation is different but here are ways I felt loved and supported when I was in my addiction, as well as some things I find helpful when dealing with other addicts.
- Don’t take their addiction personally. It’s not about you. They aren’t trying to hurt you. And just as you didn’t create their addiction, you can’t control or cure it. No matter how much you love them, your love cannot stop their addiction. Don’t think it can or should. They are in a deadly compulsive cycle and their perception is warped. It might help you to read books, watch documentaries and learn about addiction. Both my parents could teach a substance abuse course at this point; they wanted to understand and “know the enemy” so they could help me more effectively.
- Shelve the shame. The addict is already riddled with shame. They are using to blot out shame in fact — of who they are, how they feel, what they’ve done. On top of that, they are ashamed that they’re using and can’t stop. The last thing they need is to be told they are a disappointment. Try to have compassion. Remember that somebody who is in active addiction is in tremendous pain and very out-of-control. You can still accept them without approving of what they’re doing.
- See them as a sick person, not a bad person. This one is related to #2. Although I did many bad things (like dealing drugs to being verbally and physically abusive to people I loved) while I was an active addict, I was not a bad person. I was a sick person and my addiction made me do things I wouldn’t normally do. How do you view mentally ill people? They are sick, even when they do bad things. The same goes for drug addicts. Addiction is truly a type of insanity. Try to remember who they were before they fell into addiction and know that they can be that person again. Hold on to their humanity.
- Communicate. Being around an active addict can be a lot of drama and very draining. If you need a time-out, communicate that to the person you love in advance. This is very different from giving them the silent treatment or abandoning them. I choose not to talk to any of my sponsees if/when they’re loaded. They are free to call me again when they are sober. When I was in my sixth rehab, my father was just done. He was so angry and frustrated that he didn’t want to speak to me for a few months. He made it clear beforehand, though, that he still loved me and was not punishing me, he was just taking care of himself. My mother, on the other hand — a recovering alcoholic herself — never needed to pull back her emotional support.
- Don’t lose hope. The addict has lost hope. They need you to believe that they can get better because they probably don’t think they can. Remember that many people do recover. The only thing that kept me trying to get sober at certain points was that my parents and friends believed that I could — even after years of relapsing. “You can get this,” they’d tell me. “I believe in you.” Thankfully, and rather miraculously, they never lost hope. I believed that they believed and that was enough to start again.
- Recognize that tough love can backfire. My father would not let me wear short sleeves around him because he didn’t want to see my track marks. He felt that I was oddly proud of them and he wanted to see me as his daughter and not just an addict. He drug-tested me and threatened to cut me off financially if I tested dirty. But that’s not what got me clean for good. I got clean when my addiction stopped working for me and when I hit an emotional bottom and a terrifying physical bottom that were unbearable. As my sponsor says, “People cease a behavior when what it is doing to them is worse than what it’s doing for them.”
- Stay flexible. Every person’s addiction and journey to recovery are different, personal and ever-changing. My parents were adamant about staying open-minded and flexible about what or how they would help me. They were never rigid and never took a “you cross this line and we’re done” attitude. They also never pushed AA or any type of specific methodology on me. Addicts are innately defiant and do not respond well to being forced to follow a code of any kind. I do the same with my sponsees. I’m no fundamentalist; I don’t care how they get sober, only that they do.
Finally, remember that the addiction of a loved one isn’t only their chance to change and grow. It’s also yours.