There are many common pitfalls when it comes to life and recovery in particular. I want to take this series to talk about eight of them as they relate to families and loves ones of people in recovery from or still struggling with addiction. Some of these we talk about in our family program, which if you have not yet attended I highly recommend you do. In following posts, I will address the common belief that abstinence will solve everything, holding on to resentments, putting your life on hold, confusing self-concern with selfishness, living in fear, not getting help for relationship issues, and believing life should be easy.
Thinking Substances Are the Cause of Addiction
Despite decades of definitive research and evidence, the common misconception about addiction is that it is caused by a substance. Many people still think that if you try heroin, for example, you will be ‘hooked’. The vast majority of people who try any given drug, even fentanyl, do not become addicted. People also get physical dependence and addiction mixed up or think they are one and the same. Anyone who takes opiate-based painkillers for more than a few days in a row will begin to develop a tolerance and physical dependence, but most people can come off their painkillers with no problem. Why are most people ok and a select few not? What is the cause of addiction? Here, the debate rages on. Whether you believe it is genetic, behavioral, social, psychological, trauma-related, a way to fill an existential vacuum, or a combination of all these aspects, most experts can agree that addiction is more than substance related. We recognize now that people can develop addictions to any number of behaviors too. People can also switch the focus of their addiction easily from one thing to another.
Believing Abstinence Will Solve Everything
Many people going into recovery, as well as their families, believe that abstinence will solve everything, but unfortunately, it doesn’t. For the person giving up the substance or behaviour, things can become even more difficult for a time, while they adjust to dealing with life without relying on whatever it is they used. Abstinence will help to ease the minds of loved ones and set the stage to build back trust, but this takes time and sustained effort. Sometimes, partners, in particular, will think that communication is going to improve. This may happen, or in some cases, it may even get worse initially. Communication needs to be learned and practised as it does not come naturally to many. Particularly if the person in recovery has a difficult time speaking up for themselves, and they only ever did this when they were using (and it often came out sideways). By and large, abstinence does not solve problems it just gives an opportunity for problems to be solved.
Holding on to Resentments
Over the course of your loved one’s addiction, it is almost certain that they wronged you in some way. They may have lied, either boldface or by omission, they may have manipulated you in some way, or some other offence which was hurtful to you. This is because their addiction became their number one relationship pushing all others out of the way. This is not personal, it is what defines addiction. Now that they are working on their recovery, there is a chance to heal and move on.
Forgiveness is a process, it does not happen at the snap of your fingers. In fact, a leading expert in forgiveness, Robert Enright, broke it up into 20 steps with 4 phases. The 2nd phase is the decision phase because you must have a willingness and then decide to forgive. Harriot Lerner, another expert in this field, talks about the difference between forgiving and letting go and how you can let go of something so that you can move forward without necessarily fully forgiving the offender.
If you want to maintain a relationship with the offender, you will need to let go of the past and move on. Holding on to resentments damages relationships. Ask for what you need to let go and remember that it is important for your own emotional wellbeing. Counselling can help, make sure you find a therapist who you both feel comfortable with.
Putting Your Life on Hold
Many of you in a relationship with someone who has struggled with addiction have at some point put your life on hold. Maybe you cancelled a trip because the finances had been used up or your loved one was too unwell to go, and you did not want to leave them. Or you thought twice about making any big life changes until they got their addiction under control. Whatever it was you probably felt resentful (I talked more about letting go of resentments last post).
Of course, the obvious advice here is to avoid putting your life on hold for others, but it is much simpler said than done. Especially if you love and are sharing your life intimately with someone who is floundering.
I think instead it is better to suggest that you always listen to the inner voice that is telling you things are not as you would like and communicate this effectively to your partner. Let them know what your life goals and desires are and how ideally you would like to share this with them.
If your relationship to the person who struggles with addiction is less involved, like a mother or close relative, it can be a little more straightforward. Remember, your loved one is the author of his own life, and you yours. So, don’t put your life on hold because you are worried and feel compelled to try and take control of his. This will not ultimately help either of you.