The Journey of Recovery for a Loved One
As anyone who loves an addict knows, the journey along the way can be quite arduous. There are many trials and tribulations that we never see coming. Try as we might, there are times when it feels like things will never get better; in fact, until some type of therapeutic intervention is invited in, these situations generally just get worse and worse over time, and loved ones are left picking up the pieces as best they can.
The damage can be devastating—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Many loved ones of addicts exhibit codependent, people pleasing behaviours—and as this becomes their default position, they find themselves putting their own needs on the back burner while focusing on the wreckage caused by the very addicts they are so desperately trying to please. In time, loved ones become obsessed by this situation—they think about it and talk about it incessantly, desperately trying all kinds of ways to change what is happening—generally because they feel so afraid and powerless.
They will often have trouble sleeping, experience great difficulty focusing on their work or education, and perhaps even neglect other family members such as their partners or their non-addicted children. In some cases, family and friends of people with addiction will become so overwhelmed and over-extended that they themselves become ill—sometimes with potentially life-threatening conditions such as cancer or heart conditions—and even then, they will continue to look after the addict’s needs instead of taking better care of themselves.
Are we having fun yet?
Nothing You Want is Upstream
When you look after someone else to the point where your own life may self-destruct, you are definitely heading in the wrong direction: upstream. Although loved ones may find themselves splashing up against the gentler current of health and well-being at times, in that faster-rushing stream of addiction, they put their oars in the water and continue to paddle desperately in that upstream direction. Travelling upstream is a recipe for disaster because it will completely tire you out and get you absolutely nowhere. Think about it—if you try to do everything for an addict, solve all their problems, take on responsibilities that are not yours, and continue to enable someone who is practicing self-destructive behaviours, are you really helping in any kind of healthy way?
Can there ever be an end to this?
I have a spiritual teacher who often reminds me that nothing I want is upstream. If I’m going against the flow in my life, it will take me a much longer time to get to my chosen destination—if I ever get there at all—and the journey itself will be far more arduous. When we enable instead of help, we will find ourselves going upstream, no question. And it will take much more time, with so much more unnecessary and ineffective effort, to get to the desired resolution to this drastic and sometimes very dangerous situation of addiction. We definitely need to find another way—one that actually works!
In my opinion, tough love has gotten a very bad rap over the years. Maybe it would be more effective to call it firm love. But any way you slice it, enabling an addict to continue the addiction is never a loving act—how could it be? Whatever name you want to use, finding ways to help instead of enable is, in my opinion, the most loving thing any of us can do.
I often find that before I begin to work with a family, many of them have continued to enable and not set any consequences for two reasons: 1) because they were very afraid of dealing with someone who could be rageful and manipulative, and 2) because they were afraid the addict they love might end up on the street. They’ve put up with abusive behaviour, allowed themselves to be disrespected over and over again and, whenever they gave the addicts money or did any type of enabling, they were basically just condoning the behaviour and paying them to keep on being addicts. The results were quite predictable—nothing much changed. How can that be anything but frantic, upstream behaviour on the part of the loved ones? How can that be helpful for someone struggling with an addiction?
But as we continued to work together, these families came to realize that tough love is love—and when it is used wisely and compassionately, great results can happen. When healthy, appropriate boundaries are put in place and abuse is no longer tolerated from practicing addicts, we prepare them for the world that actually exists, and things invariably begin to change. When loved ones turn their boats around and begin to travel downstream, going with the current of recovery and well-being instead of against it, most addicts make the choice to do the same.
When we, as loved ones, finally understand that enabling is not the same as helping, and when we shift what we’re doing—in the name of love for the addict—our self-respect begins to grow and the next logical step is that the addicts begin to respect us more as well. As we teach them what is and what is not acceptable behaviour, they almost always choose to turn their own boats downstream as well, travel in that direction along with us, and truly begin to honour their own recovery.
We Can Turn This Around
If you’re feeling utterly overwhelmed, at the end of your rope, and you simply don’t know what else to do to make your addict change—the best thing you can do is take a good, hard, honest look at the direction you’ve been heading in. If you’ve been trying to change them without first working on your own issues, you’ve been heading upstream. If you’ve been working harder than the addicts you love to ‘make them change’, then you’re heading upstream. When you can care about your addict enough to say “I love you enough to no longer support you in active addiction—but when you truly want help, I’ll be here for you,” that’s when you’ll feel yourself breathe a deep sigh of relief as you gently guide your boat in the best direction for everyone involved: downstream.
Let’s face it—the addict you love probably isn’t going to come to you and say, “Please set some boundaries for me and don’t let me get away with things that are unhealthy for me. Please raise the bar for me and have healthier, more realistic expectations for me. Please turn the boat we’re both travelling in together around and head downstream, so that we can all get well together.”
You are most likely going to be the one who will have to make some changes first. It may be that you have no idea how to go in that better direction. If that is the case, then please reach out for help from a therapist or support group that will have some wisdom and effective strategies to share with you. There is help out there for you—and because of the destructive nature of addiction, it’s best not to wait too long to find it.
As loved ones, we can turn this around. We can begin to look at how our enabling is really meeting our own needs—not our addict’s needs—and change direction. Even though going upstream may seem easier to you because it’s what you’ve always done, remember that life really does begin at the end of your comfort zone, especially the ones that have actually been the most un-comfortable.
I believe you will find, in a very short time, that travelling downstream is not only more effective as a strategy, but that it is also much more gratifying for all concerned.
If you would like to talk with Candace to see if she can help you with your particular situation, go here and fill out the questionnaire you’ll find there.