Not infrequently, I will receive a call from someone who is looking for help with addiction. In these calls I’m thinking about, it’s not the person suffering the addiction who calls - it’s a loved one. They want to know a few things:
It’s an apt analogy to say that loving someone in addiction is like standing on the shore and watching your beloved thrash about in the waves. It’s painful. It’s scary. You don’t know if they’ll survive.
Addiction is an interesting area of mental health. Though it’s often grouped with mental health (as in, mental health and substance use treatment centres), it’s also distinguished from it. One we treat as an affliction, the other as a choice. It’s a curious thing that they are treated as separate issues, and the outcome can mean the difference between compassion and criminality.
When someone with any other mental health issue – from bipolar to anorexia to schizophrenia – becomes ill to the extent that they are gravely harmful to themselves or others, they can be hospitalized involuntarily until the risk is no longer critical. Not so with addiction. Unless incarcerated, which brings a host of other problems, a person in addiction must voluntarily seek treatment in order to get help. This can take years, for those who are lucky enough to make it.
And where does this leave loved ones? The answer is, feeling pretty helpless much of the time. Grieving someone who is still alive. Wading in the muck of uncertainty, teetering between anger and despair. So, let’s begin to unpack some of the more common questions that loved ones ask.
What can I do to help?
When someone lives with chronic pain, the pain never really goes away. The trick is to live with it mindfully, appreciating subtle differences in sensation and noting how the pain changes from one moment to the next. When you love someone with addiction the pain is always there…but life still needs to go on. There are birthdays to celebrate; love still wants to love. Rather than letting it stop you from enjoying life, invite the pain to come with you. Allow it as a guest, whether welcome or not. To resist it is to increase its hold.
Another way to help is to tend to your own wellbeing. Find a counsellor or support group if that is helpful. Eat well, sleep well, move your body. Recognize that there are other areas of your life to attend to; other people to love; events, holidays, and hobbies to enjoy. I will include resources on extra support at the bottom of the article.
What Am I Doing That Harms?
The most important thing you can do for someone in addiction is continue to hold that person in love. It’s an affliction that is easy to vilify: often the person’s behaviour is unattractive. Sometimes it is actually abusive.
So, what does loving someone with an addiction look like? Sometimes it means making a boundary. This can be anything from telling the person you will talk with them when they are sober, to calling the police if the behaviour is abusive.
In the 12 Step Tradition there is a saying: You can have boundaries or you can have resentments, but you can’t have both.
Even though boundaries can seem harsh, when done in the spirit of love they are anything but. Enabling a person to continue on a destructive path by ‘protecting’ them, however, can be inadvertently cruel. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is stop protecting them and get out of their way so that they can crash.
Another way you can reduce harm is with your language. You may have noticed that throughout this article I don’t use the word addict. I do this intentionally to create distance between the person and the problem. While I will say that someone struggles with addiction, I won’t call them an addict. Your perspective may differ on this: whatever your choice, I invite you to bring awareness to the power of language to both harm and heal.
Where Can I Find Support For Myself?
Certainly, loved ones are the silent sufferers of addiction. There are treatment centres, support groups, and counselling for those in addiction, but far less for those on the periphery. Below are links to a few supports for loved ones:
1) To date, no one in the recovery community has mobilized or organized quite as successfully as the 12 Step Tradition. Al-anon (and Alateen) “are people, just like you, who are worried about someone with a drinking problem.”
2) SMART Recovery Family and Friends is “a science-based, secular alternative to Al-Anon”. They have lots of great resources on their website for loved ones of people struggling with any addiction, not just alcohol.
3) Emotion Focused Family Therapy (EFFT) “support[s] caregivers to increase their role in their loved one’s recovery from mental health issues”. This support is mainly geared towards parents of children in their care, though it is useful for parents to children of all ages.
4) For people supporting those with addiction in Nelson and surrounding areas, the Addictions Day Treatment Program (ADTP) out of Castlegar holds family and friend support groups on occasion. To find out when the next one is being offered, call 250-304-1215.
It is my heart wish that this article makes you feel more empowered and less alone. If you find yourself standing on the shore of a loved one’s addiction, you can still appreciate the beauty of the landscape. Send love and assistance to your loved one when you can, and also tend to the other areas of your life with care. If you would like more support or have any further questions, please feel free to get in touch with me.
In health and wellness, Deirdre.