In my practice, one of the most common issues I hear people talk about is addiction; in all its various forms, guises and mutations. I help clients overcome their own personal addictions, and also spend a great amount of time counseling them on how to deal with loved ones who have their own addictions. In my opinion, one of the best books ever written about the nature of addiction that is a must-read is Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Do yourself a favour and read it. You will be glad you did. Then pass it onto others who also could use a primer on addiction.
The main addiction I help people overcome is food addiction, but I’ve also assisted many people overcome addictions to alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, toxic relationships, gambling, and shopping. I’m sure there are more addictions I could name as we as humans are so vulnerable to getting addicted to so many different things, it’s mind-blowing. Twelve Step groups can be helpful for overcoming addictions, as well as one-on-one counseling. I think the greatest tool for healing from addiction lies in breaking the barrier of isolation by reaching out and asking for help in whatever form is available and useful to you.
In this article, I would like to discuss a very important theme running throughout the collective narratives of my clients these days: DEALING WITH ANOTHER PERSON’S ADDICTION. While dealing with one’s own personal addiction can be incredibly difficult; dealing with someone else’s addiction- especially if they are in denial about it or not ready to truly face it- is an entirely different experience.
This topic touches me very deeply as well as not only did I nearly die from my own addiction (food and either over or under eating)- I also come from a family where nearly every single relative who helped raised me was (and most still are) addicts. The main addictions I have been surrounded by throughout my life are alcohol, drugs and food. Some family members have worked very hard to conquer their demons; while others, for whatever reason, have chosen not to. The majority of my loved ones have not (or if they are deceased, never did) face their problem head-on and I have had to work with that sad fact as best as I could.
I have been in therapy most of my life due to the complications of other people’s addictions and what led them to have them in the first place. I have battled (and mostly won) over my own personal addiction that nearly did me in at a very young age. And alongside that, for almost fifteen years, I have had the honour and privilege of being in a position to help individuals and families overcome various addictions; and all of the cumulative damage they cause everyone involved. This is never a clean linear process. Instead, it often feels like we are going up a spiral staircase, and at other times down, and then back up again. This is the way many describe the recovery process of healing from addiction; whether it’s your own or a loved one’s. It doesn’t seem to matter- the process is often long, arduous, messy, and comes with many gains as well as many losses.
Having been on both sides of the addiction fence, and as my role as professional observer and guide, I have come to some basic conclusions about what is helpful when you are dealing with a loved one with a serious addiction. I am guessing that many of you reading this have been in this role, are currently in this role, or will be in the future sometime. I hope you find these tips helpful to you in your journey; wherever you happen to be.
Esther’s top Five Tips for Successfully Caring for a Loved One with an Addiction
Tip #1: Take Care of Yourself First No Matter What
You know when you go onto an airplane and they give you the speech about making sure you put your own oxygen mask on before assisting another with theirs? I think the deeper spiritual lesson here is this:
We are little use to another if we, ourselves, aren’t situated solidly within firm foundation.
In my eyes, people in the throes of addiction are really bad at self-care. In fact, overcoming addiction inevitably involves learning to be kind to ourselves and taking care of all parts of ourselves: body, mind and spirit. The best way to teach others to practice self-care is by fervently giving them a living example of someone who does just that. Trust me, this is much easier said than done. However, with continued and regular practice, you will find that you are always in a better position to extend loving kindness and support to the addict in your life if you yourself are grounded, rested, exercised, and fed well.
Tip #2: Work on Letting Go of the Responsibility for Another’s Problem
Many of us who are attached to someone with an addiction actually become part of the problem itself and serve to perpetuate the addiction and not help the other to face it and heal from it on his or her own. While I’m not a big fan of the word ‘codependent’- I find it a very Western and individualistic concept which doesn’t fit for many cultures throughout the world- sometimes a basic understanding of what can happen to us while coping with another’s addiction can be useful.
I like this definition of codependency as it relates to a loved one of someone with an addiction:
Attention and energy focus on the family member who is ill or addicted. The co-dependent person typically sacrifices his or her needs to take care of a person who is sick. When co-dependents place other people’s health, welfare and safety before their own, they can lose contact with their own needs, desires, and sense of self.
It is vital for you to separate yourself from your loved one’s addiction and all of the behaviours that stem from it. You can still love and care for them while taking a strong stand by asserting that the other person has an addiction and that the best way to help them is to not be part of the problem which feeds it’s continuation.
The most common example I can think of is in the case of a wife of an alcoholic who constantly compensates for him to meet family needs in order to keep things ‘smooth’ and functioning. In this case, dad may miss his son’s big baseball game he was promising to be at for weeks because he’s drunk himself into a stupor and is asleep on the couch by three o’clock in the afternoon. Mom sees this and takes her kids to the game, and tells them that dad ‘isn’t feeling well’ and needs to stay home and rest. This causes the son to doubt his reality because he knows the truth- dad is drunk and passed out on the couch and therefore doesn’t attend his special game. He ends up disappointed and confused because he sees one reality, but is told an alternate story about why dad can’t come to his game.
In a recovery situation, the wife in this family would be angry that her husband is drunk and passed out on the couch and let down their son. She would be honest with her kids about dad’s problem and confront her husband and demand that he get help so this doesn’t end up happening again in the future.
Tip #3: Get Support and Ask for Help
I believe that what feeds and sustains addictions in individuals and families are mainly due to one key factor: ISOLATION. From the source quoted previously, isolation is described this way:
Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that problems exist. They don’t talk about them or confront them. As a result, family members learn to repress emotions and disregard their own needs. They become “survivors.” They develop behaviors that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions. They detach themselves. They don’t talk. They don’t touch. They don’t confront. They don’t feel. They don’t trust. The identity and emotional development of the members of a dysfunctional family are often inhibited.
I believe that the phenomenon of isolation in these instances comes from a preceding factor: DENIAL. In such cases, almost (or everyone) in the family are in denial about the addiction- the addict him/herself, and other family members. That is why I love the metaphor of ‘the pink elephant in the room’ (i.e., the addiction) that no one in the family speaks about. I believe that first we must have the courage to point out the pink elephant, acknowledge it’s existence and the problems it’s creating for everyone- thus breaking the individual and collective denial- and then take steps to break the isolation and reach out for help.
Tip #4: Set Healthy Boundaries
Addictive family systems thrive on a lack of clear personal boundaries. I have found over the years that setting firm boundaries with loved ones is not being cruel or heartless. In fact, it’s the most loving thing we can do. This doesn’t mean trying to change someone else, but letting the other person know what you will and will not tolerate. For example, you may decide to tell your alcoholic loved one that you are aware that you have no control over their drinking, but that you will not engage with them when they are actively practicing their addiction. Such a boundary may look like this: If s/he chooses to drink in the house, you will make a point of either going out or removing yourself from the situation by staying in another room while they drink.
The key to the success of this is to mean what you say and stick to it like a broken record. If you’re not really serious and aren’t prepared to carry out the consequence for their drinking around you, don’t even bother saying it. However, if and when you are ready to do the tough work of establishing a healthy boundary with them concerning their addiction, go for it and stick to it. Expect a lot of resistance from the other for quite some time. They probably won’t believe you at first because it’s a new behavior they have never seen in you. However, with consistent and regular practice, they will learn that you are serious. This may even lead to the addicts looking at themselves while they sit there drinking alone night after night and consider trying an alternative.
Tip #5: Create and Maintain a Rock-Solid Spiritual Life for Yourself
Lastly, I feel the necessity to invite you to find a rich, deep, and meaningful spiritual life and to consciously transport yourself to this realm on a daily basis. Personally, it is my spirituality which has guided and sustained me throughout a very turbulent life journey and as I grow older, I rely on it even more as it provides me with a deep sense of calm, grounding, and a sense that I am not alone in my sorrows or my joys. I am not talking about organized religion here; although many people find that a wonderful source of spirituality. I’m talking about having a sense that there is something outside of yourself that is vaster, wiser, and all knowing that is looking out for you, your loved ones, and the world at large.
I honestly don’t think I’d be here today writing this if I hadn’t had a strong sense of a Higher Power guiding me throughout most of my life. For me, this connection is felt strongly when I meditate in the morning and evening each day, when I do yoga, and when I’m outside in nature enjoying the magic and beauty of the world I find all around me. Some people find this when spending time with animals, being alone, or when they travel to far off distant places. It doesn’t matter how or where you find your connection; it just matters that you find it and connect with it on a regular and consistent basis.