Contributor: Michael Solinksi, EdS, LPC, LCADC, ACS, CCS, NCC, Director of Substance Abuse Counseling Services at GenPsych
Addiction is viewed as a disease because, in part, it changes the brain’s structure. It alters how the brain functions and how decisions are made.
Addiction too, affects the family unit in a similar manner. Loved ones are naturally affected by the symptoms of the substance abuser. The addict/alcoholic’s behaviors become more and more destructive, limiting his or her potential and leading to legal, social, personal and/or career consequences.
Observing these troubling events can be heartbreaking to the substance abuser’s family, who often do not understand why the addict/alcoholic cannot – or will not – stop the addictive behaviors.
Trying to Control Just the Symptoms of Addiction
In response to the substance abuser’s downfall, loved ones attempt to control his or her behaviors through a variety of means: encouragement, guilt, and pleading are just a few methods. Like the addict/alcoholic, the loved one’s life quality becomes severely compromised.
Worry, sadness, and obsession with the addict/alcoholic’s well-being can develop enough to become a normal part of life. Thus, codependency has plagued the loved one as much as addiction has claimed the addict/alcoholic.
Addiction and Codependency
Codependency has many definitions. In short, codependency occurs when one makes another person more and more important than him or herself. Although selflessness is often considered a good trait, codependents’ emotions come to revolve around how they believe the other person perceives them.
Their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors increasingly revolve around the recipient of their focus. Their own emotional, mental, financial, and spiritual well-being becomes less and less important as he or she struggles to control or protect the addict/alcoholic from self-destruction.
Loved ones who develop codependency symptoms often lack assertiveness, become “people pleasers”, withhold their emotions out of fear of upsetting others, and develop trust issues. Low self-esteem, avoiding his or her own feelings, and/or becoming overly controlling are additional traits of the codependent.
They are unable to “let go with love”, or let go at all, out of fear and other negative emotions. These symptoms are oftentimes a natural consequence to the unnatural effects of substance abuse.
“Letting Go” Is Not Giving Up
Because addiction alters how the addicts’ brains function, their thoughts and behaviors are oftentimes far removed from how “normal” people respond to life circumstances and challenges. Responding to addicts/alcoholics behaviors as though their brains are not afflicted with addiction ultimately results in confusion, anxiety, frustration, and resentment.
Healing from the torment of witnessing addiction overcome the addict/alcoholic can however, occur. Unfortunately, such healing involves “letting go with love”. A portion of this term, “letting go”, is sometimes associated with “giving up” or being unsupportive.
It is counter-intuitive to the loved one. After all, not supporting the addict/alcoholic seems worse; particularly since legal woes or career derailment are continuous possibilities.
Yet, letting go with love is exactly what is best for each family member involved, including the addict/alcoholic. The goal is to empower the addict/alcoholic’s recovery, not to enable his or her addiction. By shielding the substance abuser from consequences, loved ones unwittingly nurture exactly what they wish to destroy: The addictive behavior.
Sometimes, the Bad Consequences Help
Because the addict/alcoholic’s brain is hijacked by addiction, consequences are often required for them to transcend denial and to acknowledge that a problem exists. Sometimes, one needs to touch the stove to know that it is hot, no matter how many times this warning is given.
This awareness that use has evolved into abuse of, or even dependence on, the substance is sometimes generated through:
- Legal issues
- Academic shortcomings
- Family issues
- Career derailment
Each consequence can be viewed as an opportunity for the addict and his or her loved ones to directly address addiction symptoms. For the loved ones, reclaiming his or her life is of paramount importance. This begins by strictly adhering to a primary standard: Do not do for your loved one, what he or she could do for him or herself.
For example, if your loved one is unable to attend work, he or she is responsible for calling the employer. When requests for money are made by those who do not work, or who spend money on drugs or alcohol, respectfully and compassionately decline.
If the alcoholic demands you to drive to the liquor store lest he or she drive drunk, steadfastly refuse to do so. Call the police should the alcoholic drive. The consequences of a DUI could help the alcoholic understand that life has become unmanageable – perhaps the first significant step towards recovery.
Stopping the Enabling Can Encourage Real Support
By ceasing enabling addiction behaviors and centering on one’s own self-care, the environment for authentic progress can begin. Through letting go with love, family members permit the circumstances for healing to begin.
The realization that one is powerless over the addict/alcoholics’ behaviors can be hard – perhaps even impossible, at first, to accept. Attending support group meetings, such as Al Anon, can provide the foundation necessary to identify and employ effective boundaries that protect the loved one and, ultimately, severe reactions that support the addiction.
The assuring wisdom derived from Al Anon meetings can help keep the loved ones of substance abusers afloat, especially during the worst of episodes, such as losing the substance abuser to death. Attending support group meetings often empowers individuals to accept, and act upon, the wisdom of the serenity prayer.
Most notably, to identify and change what is under one’s control, and what is outside one’s sphere of influence. By courageously letting go with love, lives are reclaimed, even if adversity must be experienced, endured… and conquered.
Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!
What is your experience with letting go with love?