Ever heard the term loving someone to death? It takes on a whole new meaning when you’re talking about alcoholics and addicts. There is a reason that addiction is considered a family disease – while only one member of the family may be actively using a substance, the behavior and mentality that allows the addiction to control the home is a group effort. While every parent wants nothing more than the best for their children, the reality is that it is all too easy to find yourself trying to “help” or “protect” an addicted loved one when you are actually putting them in a position to continue living in their addiction. How many of these sound familiar?
1. Denying There’s a Problem
When we first get confronted with the possibility that a loved one has a problem with drugs or alcohol it is tempting to deny. We don’t want to acknowledge that someone we care about may have a serious issue. Or perhaps we have admitted to ourselves that something is wrong, but we don’t want to admit the severity of the situation. This type of internal resistance is extremely common, especially in the beginning of a loved one’s addiction. Call it denial or call it looking the other way, but the results are the same. We make it easy for someone that we love to continue living in a state of rationalization and justification if we ourselves are not willing to look at the problem. Why does this happen?
Because it can be very uncomfortable to look at addiction. Often, if someone that you love is dealing with an addiction, it can force you to look at yourself. There is also the shame and guilt that can accompany the realization that a loved one has been using drugs right under your nose. As long as there is denial about the problem though, nothing can be done to change it. Remember, your loved one’s addiction is not your fault and you didn’t cause it. Refusing to look at it can allow to to continue though.
2. Not Wanting Them To Be “Uncomfortable”
While nobody likes to be uncomfortable, getting uncomfortable is necessary to address addiction. In order to recover, we have to look at all of the things that we were using over. Trying to protect someone from this experience prevents them from being able to do the work that they need to, to stop drinking and using. This can take a lot of shapes and sizes.
If you have a loved one who is actively drinking and using, it can take the form of bailing them out of any trouble that they get in and protecting them from the consequences of their actions. It can also carry on into their recovery. Not wanting them to have to endure difficulties or uncomfortability in their sobriety can be just as detrimental to someone’s recovery as actively enabling them while they are still drinking and using. Whether this is in regards to their choice of addiction treatment or unreasonable demands for money and “things”, not allowing a loved one to get uncomfortable when it comes to their sobriety can cripple them in the long run.
3. Removing Responsibility From Them
A big part of actively recovering involves learning to take responsibility for our feelings and our actions. Sometimes, well meaning loved ones will make excuses for an addict and their behavior. Again, this can take place in sobriety as well as in active addiction.
In active addiction, addicts love to point the finger and play the role of victim. As a family member of an addict, if you play into this behavior and mentality it only reinforces the idea that an addict does not have to take accountability for who they are and how they are behaving. This can be hard – when a loved one is facing difficulties it is tempting to blame their circumstances on other people, places and things. The sooner that this stops though, the more quickly that the situation can change.
In recovery, the same thing can happen. Whether it is a lost job (“my boss had it out for me”), or poor grades in school (“the teacher was unreasonable”), playing into someone else’s victim mentality and reinforcing the idea that they are not responsible for their own life does more harm than good. While it can feel uncomfortable, taking responsibility for our lives is actually very empowering, because it puts us in a position where we are able to change things that we are not satisfied with and grow as people.
4. Not Taking Care of Yourself
Finally, trying to protect an addicted (or sober) loved one at the expense of your own self-care can cause a lot of damage. Running ourselves ragged in the pursuit of saving a loved one puts us in a position where we are not able to be useful or effective with anyone. The airplane cliche about the oxygen mask is highly relevant here. When you give up your own life, you make it difficult to support a loved one in a healthy way when the time comes for you to do so. The same rule applies even once they are sober. Spending all of your time worrying and focusing on them and their problems will get in the way of building a new, healthy relationship with a sober loved one and can cause a lot of friction between you.
Remember, you did not cause their addiction, you can’t control their addiction and you most certainly can’t cure it. You can be an active participant in their recovery though. By looking at the ways we enable those that we care about we are able to take contrary action and do things differently. This helps set them up for success in sobriety and it also gives us the ability to remain emotionally healthy.