There are many schools of thought about addiction and what it really is. Some people consider it to be a physical disease, while others credit genetic predisposition while also addressing the nature/nurture paradigm.
Even if some or all ring true for each of us, what I know to be true—as an addict in recovery for nearly 33 years, as a loved one of addicts, and as a professional addiction therapist for three decades—is that underneath all of this, staying in active addiction is a choice. And it’s a choice that is much easier to maintain when there is someone enabling the addiction to continue.
When faced with addiction in the family, it may be necessary to understand some of the ways addiction can manifest, as this kind of clarity will make it easier for you to improve your own situation.
Due to the fact that addiction is either mind-altering or mood-altering (and in some cases, both), people in the throes of active addiction are typically not able to be present physically or emotionally in their relationships. Their main focus is on getting their next fix, whatever that may be. Because in virtually every instance, the addicted person will use their addictive behaviour of choice to run away from his or her real—and often difficult—feelings.
Why People Engage in Addictive Behaviours
Nearly all addictions and negative behaviours—including codependency—start with fear. All of us have certain behaviours that we use when we are fearful of facing our physical, emotional, or spiritual pain. If you love an addict, you likely have adopted a pattern of avoidance to deal with the horrible feeling of losing control over your own life.
With an addicted loved one in your life, you may behave in ways that are not helpful when you are facing a challenging situation. This is typically followed by making excuses for behaving in ways that aren’t beneficial—what I like to call arguing for your limitations—rather than owning your part in keeping the dysfunctional dynamic going.
Fear is such a huge part of the addictive process that there are, in fact, three acronyms for it—and most addicts and loved ones fall into at least one of these categories. #1 and #2 below are usually old patterns that originate from a desire to not have to feel the feelings. Acronym #3 is the healthiest way of dealing with any painful situation—it is what addicts and loved ones need to aspire to, in order to shift into new ways of responding to life.
F-E-A-R #1 = Forget Everything and Run!
No matter what type of addictive behaviour people choose, it will primarily be used to change what they’re feeling. In the first example of F-E-A-R, when life becomes overwhelming, people will do whatever they can to avoid facing their reality. In this case, fear means Forget Everything and Run!
Most of the time, people use addictions to feel better or to try to become happier. Sometimes, however, those same addictions can be used to sabotage good feelings—especially when people mistakenly believe they don’t deserve happiness. Either way, the goal of addictive behaviours is to alter one’s emotional state.
Do you recognize this in yourself as well? Do you hide from your life when you feel overwhelmed by your situation—or perhaps when things are going well and you feel too good?
F-E-A-R #2 = False Evidence Appearing Real
When people sabotage themselves, they are usually under the misconception that they somehow don’t deserve to have a good life. They may even start to believe that nothing good ever happens to them, or become convinced that something negative is waiting for them just around the corner. More often than not, these faulty core beliefs begin in childhood, especially if there was addiction, domestic violence of some sort, or other dysfunctional dynamics going on in the home as they were growing up.
This is neither a realistic nor healthy way to look at life, because we all experience good and bad. When people live with the kind of fear that tells them they only deserve the bad things in life, they are trying to convince themselves that this ‘false evidence’ is actually real, because this is what their faulty belief system tells them.
So, if your default way of thinking is that life is unfair, nothing good ever happens to you, that you’re all alone in the world and can’t trust anyone, that you’re unlovable, or maybe even that you deserve to be unhappy, you’re living in this type of fear. And the good news is that you can change this!
F-E-A-R #3 = Face Everything and Recover
The way to change your faulty core beliefs is to face everything and recover. You can make the choice to use your challenges as springboards toward exactly that. If you’re ready to face reality as it is, and look for things to become even better, it will be possible for you to make different life choices.
You can learn why you’ve been engaging in addictive behaviours such as codependency and enabling—which are only adding to the chaos you are already experiencing with your addicted loved one. Only you can make the changes necessary to live with more integrity and increased self-respect.
What Is Addiction, Really?
Because there are different ways of thinking about what addiction is, how it is caused, and what can be done about it, this can create some confusion for those trying to recover. But even though these philosophies appear to be different, they can also overlap.
One theory when it comes to mood-altering addictions such as smoking, compulsive overspending, disordered eating, gambling, or codependency in relationships, is that these behaviours were role-modeled for children as they were growing up. Some children learned to use these actions quite early in their lives and unwittingly brought them into adulthood.
Some people also believe that there is a chemical sensitivity to mind-altering substances—similar to an allergy—causing people to change distinctly when they use it. For example, when imbibing alcohol, a person with an “allergy” to that substance might change from a pleasant, fun-loving guy to an angry rageaholic—or vice versa. An “allergic” reaction for someone addicted to marijuana might be to become paranoid and highly anxious after smoking it.
Regardless of the addiction and how it manifests, addictive behaviours are likely to progress and become even worse over time when the appropriate help is not forthcoming.
Addiction as a Choice
Whether addiction is considered to be a disease, the result of genetics, a product of socialization or environment, or a chemical sensitivity, when a person engages in an addictive behaviour, it ultimately stems from a personal choice to do so. As I’ve mentioned, this decision is generally made in order to change difficult feelings, but since it is a choice to react to life in this way, it is possible to make a different decision. If this weren’t true, millions of people who believe in the disease model or any of the other substructures would not have been able to recover when they made the decision to stop engaging in their addiction.
When it comes to recovery, all addicts ultimately have a choice: they can either continue to use their addiction or they can stop. It really is that simple. But simple doesn’t always mean easy—and that’s what stops a lot of addicts and loved ones from being on that healthier journey.
Because once you choose to stop, the deeper work begins—so please be gentle with yourself as you embark on your self-discovery—and remember to reach out for help when you need it.
What Is Codependency?
When the word “codependency” first came into being in the 1930s, it was used to define the loved ones of alcoholics who would drink along with their alcohol-dependent partners, in order to spend time with them and know where they were when they were not at home. Bill Wilson—the founder of AA—and his wife, Lois, are prime examples of that dynamic. But over the years the meaning of the word has shifted to mean more than that.
In today’s language, people act in codependent ways when they put others’ needs ahead of their own on a fairly consistent basis. Most loved ones of people with addictions are codependent within those relationships, and sometimes in other relationships as well. With their addicts, they do things like offer money, allow them to stay in the family home while they’re using and behaving badly in other ways, and do things for them that they could—and basically should—be doing for themselves. The bar is set very low for these addicts, often for a very long time. For the loved one, the choice to respond to the addict in this way is usually mired in a desire to avoid any and all conflict. As a result, loved ones are actually really meeting their own emotional needs—even though they sincerely do want to be able to help the addicts they so dearly love.
If you believe you are acting in codependent ways with your addicted loved one, you will have your own choice point to consider: Will you continue to hope that the addict’s negative behaviours will just go away, or will you be willing to continue doing your inner work so that you can find out why you have such a fear of and aversion to conflict?
Please remember that if nothing changes, nothing changes. Addiction is a progressive condition that does not just get better over time without positive, appropriate help.
The only way to truly bring an addiction under control is to discover what caused it in the first place. This is true for addicts and enablers alike. Counselling, rehabs, and support groups can all help with that.
If you are codependent in the ways you’re showing love to your addict, you’ll need to take 100% responsibility for your own recovery from addictive behaviours so that you can reclaim your integrity and self-respect. When you are willing to come out of your own comfort zone, you can then assist the addict you love to come out of theirs.
An enabled addict does not recover. There is now assistance for loved ones who know they need to shift the way they’re dealing with their addicts—please don’t hesitate to reach out for the help you need. Your family will ultimately thank you for it!