Whether your addicted loved one is a parent, a child, a partner, friend, or colleague, loving someone who is actively engaging in addictive behaviours is one of the most difficult ways to live. This is because addicts who continue to be involved with their own self-destructive patterns typically experience many emotional highs and lows, creating a virtual roller coaster of fantasy followed by severe despondency, remorse, and self-loathing, with every conceivable emotion in between.
Addicts often develop physical and financial problems as well, which usually result from long periods of a variety of stresses as well as their failure to take good care of themselves holistically. Unfortunately, if you love an addict, you are likely to experience many of these emotional, physical, and financial issues as well.
The Three Stages of Addiction
In the beginning stage of addiction, people generally feel they can take or leave the potentially problematic substance or behaviour. For example, a person considers himself to be a “social” user or drinker, able to indulge in alcohol and/or other drugs only recreationally. Or, a woman may tell herself she simply enjoys going to the mall or to the casino now and then—no harm in that, is there?
Later, in the progressive stage, people feel the need to engage more and more in the preferred substances or behaviours, but they remain in denial about how far the addiction has progressed. This is seen in situations where a person will be imbibing whatever is in sight, sometimes to the point of blacking out or engaging in other dangerous behaviours. Or a gambler has increased her visits to the casino—and often her spending limit—and may even stop on the way home from work several nights in a row.
In the advanced stage of addiction, the consequences are much more evident for the addict, such as more and more of the mind-altering substances are now required to achieve the same effect, and methods of procuring the drugs and alcohol are becoming more frequent and dangerous. Health and financial problems increase and the addict may lose his job. For a gambling addict, weekend trips to the casino have increased to at least once a day with far more losses than wins to show for it. The addict’s financial difficulties are now overwhelming. When you love an addict, it’s important to acknowledge what is truly going on with them in order to begin the process of releasing yourself from the life of chaos you are undoubtedly living. Ask yourself where on this continuum is the addict you love, and how long has this been the case?
Are You Isolating Yourself Because of the Addict in Your Life?
If you are in a significant relationship with an addict, you probably don’t talk in depth with others about what you are going through because of the shame and guilt you may be feeling about your situation.
You may also feel a sense of isolation, not realizing that there are other people who are in exactly the same predicaments, experiencing exactly the same feelings you are. It may be difficult for you to maintain some of your relationships because you do not want anyone to know what is really going on in your life.
Be honest with yourself, are there folks you are no longer in contact with because of an addicted loved one? Are there things you once enjoyed doing that you no longer do? Isolation is a slippery slope and will only increase the chaos you are living with every day, and using it as a means of emotional self-protection is a strategy that rarely works. If you find that you have been doing this, you may want to begin to reach out, because your secrets will only continue to keep you sick.
It’s Not That Bad, Is It? Yes, It Is!
A practicing addict’s denial can often be a mirror for a loved one’s denial—in fact, you may have become an expert in convincing yourself that things aren’t as bad as they are, simply to justify staying in such a difficult and draining relationship.
Perhaps you have lived this way for so long that it seems normal to you. It’s possible that you may already be so used to the lies, the deception, the manipulation, and the self-absorption of your addicted loved one that living like this has become, in effect, your comfort zone.
To eventually be able to come out of your comfort zone of denial, you will first need to identify and acknowledge what has become the dysfunctional “norm” that you now live with. Do you routinely put up with raging, threats and manipulation from the addict in your life? If you’re like the loved ones I regularly see in my practice when I begin to work with them, the answer is yes. And no one should have to live like that.
Helping versus Enabling
If you’re like most people who find themselves in relationships with practicing addicts, you no longer understand what a “healthy normal” is, nor do you have the tools to make that your reality. And because of this lack of tools, you have likely made some missteps that have inadvertently allowed the addict in your life to continue his or her unhealthy behaviours.
For example, do you shield the addict from things he or she doesn’t want to face about themselves? Do you walk on eggshells for fear of setting off the addict’s anger? Do you make excuses or cover up for them? Do you lie to them to avoid an argument? Those are all enabling behaviours.
Focusing on Yourself
When you begin to take positive action to remedy the situation, you become part of the solution rather than being part of the problem. The most important thing you will need to do is learn how to focus on yourself. As the loved one of a person with addictive behaviours, most of your energy has been spent worrying about and placating someone else, perhaps trying to solve their increasing emotional, financial, and physical health problems. This may feel like the path of least resistance, but in reality you are helping to keep the addiction going.
Focusing more on others than you do on yourself is a form of codependency. Your own recovery from participating in dysfunctional behaviours will truly begin when you start to focus your attention and energy away from the addicted person and onto yourself.
If you are like most people who are in relationships with addicts, looking after yourself first will be a novel concept for you. But as you start taking better care of yourself and treating yourself with more respect, you will experience the ripple effect of other people in your life respecting you more as well. Remember—you are teaching others how to treat you by showing them how you are treating yourself. As well, as you begin to live your own best life, you will begin to role-model for your addicted loved ones how to live in healthier ways—a win-win situation for all who are involved.