Addiction is an insidious disease, and it destroys lives.
It doesn't simply effect the life of the addict/alcoholic, it seeps into the lives of everyone who cares about them. It makes everyone feels helpless. People search madly for a reason why - why is this person destroying their life? Why do they continue to drink/use when nothing but misery follows?
This isn't a post about the disease of addiction and the myriad of reasons someone continues on a path of self-destruction when all the evidence points to an obvious solution ... just stop. It boils down to the frustrating fact that an addict in the throes of their addiction can no more stop on their own than a diabetic can force their body to produce insulin, or a cancer patient can will rogue cells to stop multiplying.
This is a post for those who love an addict/alcoholic.
It's not your fault.
Addiction can hit anyone; it doesn't matter what your ethnic, economic or educational background is .. addiction doesn't discriminate. Some environmental factors do come into play, of course. If you grow up surrounded by drugs and/or drinking, the chance that you will use yourself increase dramatically.
But you can grow up comfortably, in a loving and supportive family, and addiction can still find you.
I am a case in point. I was raised by loving and supportive parents in a very stable home environment, financially comfortable, ivy-league educated and not surrounded by drugs or drinking at all when I grew up, and alcoholism got me anyway.
It's the way we're hardwired. My last post about fear and how it fueled my addiction elicited some interesting responses. My inbox filled with messages from people struggling with this disease, who said: me too. I don't know why I have always had this hole in the middle of me. I don't know why I try to hide from myself.
I also got emails from people who love an alcoholic, saying: I don't understand. What made you so afraid, why did you want to hide?
The answer is frustrating: I don't know.
What I know for sure is that I speak to thousands of alcoholics and addicts every year, and we're all programmed the same way. A sixty year old male cocaine addict feels the same on the inside as I do.
We're hardwired differently, us addicts. Life seems pointier, louder, brighter to us. We suffer from an odd combination of competence and profound insecurity. We seek validation from the outside in when we're actively drinking/using. We don't understand how to love ourselves.
If you love an addict, this is confounding. Most addicts/alcoholics are intelligent, compassionate and loving people. We have supportive family and friends. We are successful in our jobs. We're creative, innovative and outgoing. We look fine on the outside. We are teachers, physicians, pilots, parents, CEOs, pastors.
Recovery isn't just about stopping drinking or using. Recovery is about digging deep, staring at the insides we've spent a lifetime avoiding. Recovery teaches us to find acceptance, to love ourselves as we are. And as long as we don't ignite our disease by drinking or using, we heal. We recover. We find peace of mind and learn to face the hard stuff like fear.
But if you love an active alcoholic or addict, what do you do?
The first thing to know is you can't fix them. They have to fix themselves.
They have to admit that they are powerless against drugs/alcohol and that their life is unmanageable. This can be astonishingly hard for an addict to do. We can lose jobs, our license, the love of our family and friends, and we still refuse to see that it is alcohol that is at the root of it all. We search madly for any other reason - ANY other reason - than stopping drinking. We point madly about, blaming our job (or lack thereof), money (or lack thereof), heartbreak, grief, depression, anxiety. ANYTHING but alcohol. We'd rather be called crazy than alcoholic. Why? Because we think the thing that is actually destroying us is holding us together. This is the illogical thought pattern of an active alcoholic.
And so we lie. We exaggerate or minimize. We steal. We take advantage of love and support, turning into evidence that we can't be that bad. We break hearts. We behave in ways the sober us would never, ever behave.
All too often, the only way to help an alcoholic is to start shutting doors. This doesn't mean you don't love and care about someone; in fact, it means the opposite. You can love an alcoholic to death. Give an alcoholic a place to live, or money, or even love, and they will stay stuck in their disease. Very often the only thing that gets an alcoholic to get help is for them to have a moment of lucidity and realize that everyone is gone, and that they are the common denominator of their own misery.
I heard a line on the show Intervention, and it has stuck with me. The interventionist was coaching a family on what to say to a woman who was a mother, sister, daughter and friend, and she wouldn't stop drinking despite some dire consequences in her life. The interventionist told the family to say to her: "I will do anything to help you stop, but I will no longer participate in your self-destruction". I've heard it said another way: "I love you unconditionally, but I don't have to have unconditional acceptance of your actions".
It's hard, loving an alcoholic. Just like the alcoholic is searching desperately for something they can do to get out of their spiral (other than surrender), loved ones are searching just as desperately for something they can do to help. Get them into rehab? Give them money so they can afford gas in order to find a job? Send them to a counselor?
The sad truth is that if the alcoholic doesn't admit they have a problem and ask for the help, these things don't work. Recovery is an inside job.
So please, stop thinking you have done something (or not done something) to create an alcoholic. We aren't created, we're made this way. We are the only ones who can fix ourselves. We have to ask for help. We have to throw our hands up and surrender and say we'll do anything - ANYTHING - to stop. If you tell an alcoholic they need to go to rehab and you hear things like: "But my kids need me" or "But I have to work" -- they aren't ready. If you tell an alcoholic to get help and they tell you "I know I have a problem, I'm working on it. I'm only drinking on (insert futile attempt to control here)"... they aren't ready.
The best thing you can do, as someone who loves an addict, is face some hard truths of your own, and plan for the worst. Don't lose yourself to blame or guilt, because you could no more make someone an alcoholic than you can get them to stop. Put boundaries around yourself, keep yourself emotionally and physically safe. Cut them out of your life until they ask for help and are ready to do anything to stop. If that means they have no place to live, no money, no friends -- so be it.
Trying to save an alcoholic from consequences keeps them sick. I know it's heartbreaking. It's like watching a train racing 100 mph towards a brick wall and the engineer is stepping on the gas instead of the brakes. But if you saw a train about to hit a wall, you wouldn't get between the train and the wall. You'd pray like mad and hope there were pieces left to pick up, that the engineer survives and finally realizes he needs help.
Be ready to get that phone call, the one that says your loved one is in jail, or the hospital. Or, God forbid, dead. Make peace with the fact that you can't do anything to prevent someone's rock bottom until that person asks for help.
We hit bottom when we stop digging, not when someone yanks the shovel out of our hand.
I wish I had better news. I wish there was a magical cure for addiction.
Lastly - find your own support system. Al-Anon, or online forums, or trusted friends, or others who have lived through loving an addict. So much love, energy and time is poured into an active alcoholic. Loved ones need the same kind of support. They suffer from the same stigma - nobody wants their wife/daughter/sister/friend to be an alcoholic.
Loved ones are NOT alone. 65% of American adults are impacted by addiction either directly or indirectly.
Find the help you deserve, and don't try to do this alone.