This week, I wanted to take some time to talk about the struggles that family members endure when dealing with a loved who is suffering from addiction. In situations when there is substance abuse, those closest to the one struggling are the ones who shoulder the financial and emotional burdens. Mothers, fathers, children and spouses are most often the ones who deal directly with the chaos produced by the disease, but it can also be grandparents, employers, and friends. Whoever takes on the role of caretaker for the addict, they are sure to experience feelings of confusion, hopelessness, anger, and guilt. Unfortunately, these emotions are often the very things that the loved one in active addiction uses to manipulate the family member in order to continue their alcohol and drug use. Without help, family members may end up making the situation worse by enabling them to continue their substance use without consequences.
So what are we talking about when we in the recovery community talk about enabling? Enabling I’ve witnessed over the years can run the gamut from allowing an adult child to use drugs and remain in the home, to actually buying heroin for the user, fearing that this is the only way to keep them safe. The tricky part of enabling is that sometimes enabling and love look very similar. Most parents would be willing to do anything to keep their child from having to go to jail or deal with the devastation of bankruptcy, but every consequence that an addict receives can bring them closer to finding recovery. When an addict is continually rescued, their sense of reality becomes even more warped than it already is, allowing them to believe that they are exceptions to the rules that everyone else in society has to follow. It also allows the person addicted to continue to live in delusion. They can make themselves believe that a drug addict is only someone who lives in a cardboard box and sells themselves for their drug, not a clean-cut guy with a polo shirt and a new IPhone bought by their parents.
In my years working with family members whose loved one is suffering with addiction, two things seem to offer the most relief: The first is learning that they are powerless over their loved one’s addiction. This means understanding that they did not cause the addiction, they can’t control the addiction, and they cannot cure the addiction. The relief comes in realizing that they no longer need to walk on eggshells around their loved one because there is nothing they can say that is going to make them start using, and there is nothing they can do that will make them stop. This doesn’t mean that there is no effort to help their loved one, it means they realize that without professional help, the addiction will continue to worsen on its own. I know for sure that the best thing family members can do for their loved one is to get them high-quality treatment and counseling.
The second crucial step for family members to take is to get support and counseling for themselves. Often times family members become so focused on the person in addiction that they neglect their own internal lives. They become isolated and alone, feeling that if they seek support they will be judged, blamed, or rebuffed. Whether support is found in Al-anon, Nar-anon, or their local church community, it is imperative that family members find a group that can help them navigate the uncertainty and confusion that accompany the disease of addiction. When parents ask me what to do to help their son or daughter who is in treatment, my answer is always the same: The best thing you can do for them is to work on yourself. Addiction does not exist in a vacuum, there are always environmental factors at play, often unacknowledged addiction and co-dependency in the family of origin.
There are so many of us who have watched loved ones battle the disease of addiction. Sometimes the feeling of powerlessness and grief is so intense, you wonder if there really is a light at the end of the tunnel. At the same time, I have seen hundreds, if not thousands of families healed and reassembled through the process of recovery, all of whom felt at one time as if the end was near. With each client that I counsel and work with, I always try to remember that there is part of them that wants recovery, though it may be hard to see underneath all the lies, anger, shame, and despair. My job as a counselor is to fan the flames of change, and to see the person before me as who they truly are, not who they have become in their disease. I have never met a hopeless case, and I hope I never do.
Lastly, I want to say happy birthday to the best mother in the world, Linda Browning. Mom sacrificed time and money in order to help save my life, and without her and my father, I would not be here today. Mom instilled in me a love of reading, compassion for others, and most importantly, faith that there is more to this world than what can be experienced with the five senses. She is a wonderful example of someone who practices spiritual principles as a way of life and continues to be an example that I look to for how to live my life. Happy Birthday, mom. Love you.