We’re relational beings: We exist in harmony or discord with others. Many people have long-running relationships with a drug or behavior that are similar to the ones they have with other people. Both kinds of relationships contain highs and lows as well as times of pain and joy.
When dysfunctional interactions happen daily, it’s time to make a choice: Continue on the path of addiction or change course. As a clinician, I often instruct people to write a breakup or “Dear John” letter to their addiction.
Considering the Impact of Your Addiction
I ask clients in romantic relationships about their commitment to their partners. Most say they’re monogamous. I remind them that substance abuse is like a third person, one their partner either never agreed to or didn’t realize would take up so much space “in bed.”
Next, I ask them to look at their conflicting core beliefs. One might be, “I know my substance abuse has cost me my license, my job, my relationships, my freedom, or my health, but I keep using because doing so helps me socialize and keeps my emotions under control.”
I then hand them a piece of paper and a pen, and I invite them to bare their souls in a letter to their addiction. I remind them that no one else will see the letter unless they choose to share it. No censoring or editing is allowed, just raw emotion spilled out onto the paper.
Many clients have produced brilliant, profound letters, even those who never completed high school or who weren’t professional writers. Many have chosen to read their letters aloud in our sessions, and I’ve joined them in crying over their revelations. I encourage them to keep the letter to remind themselves of how far they’ve come when they feel drawn to the problematic substance or behavior.
My Breakup Letter
My process addiction of workaholism and running myself ragged has been on my mind lately. I offer my own letter as an example:
You’ve been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Maybe our connection is ancestral: I come from a long line of immigrants who fled persecution to make a home in a new land. They toiled to support their families. They instilled that same work ethic in my parents who worked hard, volunteered, maintained friendships, cared for their aging mothers, and sustained a loving marriage for almost 52 years. My parents made their overloaded lifestyle seem far too easy. I inherited their tendency to work hard, thinking it was praiseworthy.
And it was. People gave me kudos for good grades, good manners and good social values. Who wouldn’t want to keep receiving that kind of recognition? I certainly did. You had me convinced that if I didn’t keep toiling to measure up, I’d be a failure, unable to support myself. I was chasing a carrot on a stick, and you were the one dangling it in front of me. You told me that all my achievements came from you and that without you, I’d lose everything.
But believing you almost cost me my life.
A heart attack helped me see I needed to cut ties with you. When someone leaves an abuser, this can be the most dangerous time in the relationship. The abuser’s attempts to make the victim stay tend to become more forceful. It was the same way with you.
When I started cardiac rehab, you persuaded me to do more: put in more time, exercise more intensely, sweat more profusely. You told me I had to substitute my fitness discipline for my professional focus because I was no longer working 12 hours or more a day. It felt great to leave the gym dripping wet and limping. I paid for it by feeling exhausted for the rest of the day, but it felt like a good tradeoff at the time.
Medical tests showed that my adrenal glands were suffering and that I was setting myself up for another health crisis. My doctor said to cut my workout time to three days a week — you had me negotiate for four. Are you afraid I’ll become a couch potato if I don’t respect my healthy limits?
I’m calling in the “Reserves” — the human kind. My family and friends are with me. They’re standing beside and behind me as I show you the door. You had your place in my life once. I thank you for the lessons. Now it’s time for you to go as I take a new path — one with gratitude, grace and ease — and without you.
Sincerely (no longer) yours,
Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist, book author, motivational speaker, licensed social worker and interfaith minister. She has worked in the fields of addiction and recovery as both therapist and educator for 35 years. Edie covers topics such as relationships, communication, mental health, stress management, spirituality, sexuality, loss and grief, as well as resilience in the face of life changes.