tough love

As a person who’s struggled with addiction, I’ve often thought about what went wrong, and what my friends and family might have done to prevent this seeming “tragedy.”  More generally, I guess the question that needs to be asked is what anyone can do to help a loved one with an addiction?  I think the most important thing you can do and also the hardest thing you will have to do, is to give unconditional love to your addicted loved one.  You might be thinking, “well….duh!”, but actually, providing non-judgmental, unconditional love to a person who is struggling with addiction issues is a lot harder than it seems.

 Loving someone who actively repels your affection is challenging at best, but for them to recover, it’s crucial.  That may mean texting or leaving voicemails, emailing or writing letters all of which go unanswered for weeks or months at a time, but leave no doubt in your loved one’s mind that you care about them, love them and miss them.  Although they may mostly be in a drug induced haze, they will have moments of clarity, and it’s at those moments when they can be reached and when they need to know they are loved and wanted, no matter what.

I can tell you from personal experience, the last thing I thought I wanted was love, but at the same time, it was also the thing I craved.  I wanted you to believe that I was happy and well adjusted, but the truth is, I felt lonely most of the time.  I was uncomfortable with who I was, so I used drugs to help me feel more at ease in social situations.  What began socially, became an everyday habit I couldn’t live without.  I began demanding that my family and friends leave me alone, so I could do what I wanted.  At the same time, I felt intensely ashamed and embarrassed about what I was doing to myself – I didn’t want to let anyone know how bad things were getting, so I would avoid phone calls and meetings with my family and friends.  I think my parents may have wanted to respect my privacy and give me the space to work things out on my own.  From time to time, when I was out of money or food, or needed a place to stay, I would pop back up as if everything was normal (like I wasn’t the source of tremendous worry for them) and when I did, they would help me, but there were large gaps of time when I was off the grid and for lack of a better way of putting it, they allowed me to stay lost.

I wish my parents had talked to me directly about my issue and the effect it was having on me and them.  I know addiction is a difficult topic to broach, but I think honest acknowledgment on a regular basis helps.  Don’t pretend that there isn’t a problem.  I think a lot of folks hope the situation will work itself out on its own, but usually that doesn’t happen.  Get involved and take an active interest in your loved one’s struggle, in a way that is helpful, but not demanding or nagging.  Let them know often, that you care about them and you’re there for them.

So what got me to the point where I was ready to make a change?  Consequences – the seriously bad consequences of my own behavior were what I needed to get me headed in the right direction.  I’ll give you a specific example; I got arrested.  I was in jail with a bond I couldn’t afford, and while my folks took my phone calls from jail while I was locked up, they wouldn’t bond me out.  I remember them telling me, “You got yourself into this mess – you will have to get yourself out.”  I was so angry, but my parents made their point.  That was the toughest love they ever gave me, and ultimately, it’s what helped me to recover.  I was finally forced to live with the consequences of my own actions.  When there was nowhere else to turn, I had to dig deep inside myself, and that’s when I finally started getting better.  For me, it was being arrested, but your loved one will need to have a consequence that is significant enough that they stop and take notice – losing a job, overdosing or a DUI – whatever it is, let them experience it fully.  Don’t minimize its impact on them.

You cannot fix your loved one; they need to do the work themselves!  And while this may be uncomfortable for you to hear, and more uncomfortable for you to practice, it’s the truth.  What you can do is love them and support them, sometimes from afar, all the while allowing them to experience the consequences of their own actions.  When they are ready, and when they ask for help, do what is comfortable for you.  That may be as simple as driving them to a meeting, or taking them to treatment or even just listening while they cry.

For me, the experience of addiction became about numbing my feelings – eliminating them, actually, and I think that’s common to most addicts.  My advice to you – take any opportunity you have to elicit feelings in your addicted loved one.   Allow them to express their feelings – don’t judge and don’t take anything personally.  When I was in active addiction, I could be extremely hateful, and even though the outward expressions of my hate was directed at anyone who was in the vicinity, the real object of my loathing was me.

And last, I would strongly suggest you attend Alanon.  For those of you who don’t know, Alanon is a support group for people whose loved ones are addicted.  You’ll learn “tough love.”  You’ll learn how to distinguish between tough love and withholding love, and you’ll learn how to avoid enabling.  More importantly, you’ll have the support of others who have walked your path.  They will be able to comfort you, because they’ve been through what you’re going through — they’ve felt how you feel.

Anyone will tell you, maintaining a relationship with a loved one who is struggling with addiction is challenging, and sometimes it feels impossible.  But it also provides you an opportunity to learn about yourself.  You will learn to recognize and accept your own limitations and you will learn your own capacity for love.  And although at times, you may feel like you’ve reached the end of your rope, hang on and don’t let go, because recovery is possible.  The “seeming” tragedy I described earlier has turned out to be one of the best learning and growing experiences of my life, and I have profound gratitude for family and friends who supported me on my journey.


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