Loving the Addicts in Our Lives.
BY ASHLEE MATTHEWS
When I was growing up, addiction was an elusive, almost taboo topic. I remember seeing it here or there in a TV show or being mentioned by someone’s parents at dinner, usually talking about another random kid who was tangled up in drugs. It was always far off though, something that other people’s families had problems with, not mine. I didn’t need to know too much about it or worry about it until, one day, it wasn’t someone else’s problem anymore. It was someone I loved that was struggling. It was my problem.
When the people I love were in the midst of their addictions, I wish that there had been someone there to tell me what to do. I wish I would have known then that relapse was common. That my feelings and fears were not irrational. I remember thinking that there must be an answer to all of this . . . if we could just find the right combination of words to say. Surely if enough people showed up and told this person how much they loved them, this could all be over. What I learned though was that there was not and never has been a formulaic solution to addiction. Nor is there a definitive guidebook out there telling you how to best love those in your life struggling with addiction. There is no rulebook for “when this happens…do this.”
What we know, or rather what I have learned, is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but community. I heard this recently in a TED Talk by Johann Hari. Ever since, I’ve pieced that together from my own experiences and seen how truthful this advice could be. Addiction is dark and isolating, usually accompanied by depression, fear, loneliness, history of abuse, and/or trauma, etc. Community and friendship are integral to the recovery process for addiction. Friendship, love, and community are vital to the well-being of all of us as human beings. Knowing we are not alone and that we do not have to face our darkest days alone is imperative. This is true for me and this is true for you. This is also true for the addicts in our lives.
The first big lesson I learned on my own with a family member who was struggling with addiction was that no matter how much I loved that person, it was not enough to save them. My love could not rescue them. In recognizing that, while sobbing in my car, I felt freedom to love that same family member without expectation anymore. I no longer was waiting for my love to be enough for them. It was there, and I knew it. And I knew that I would keep letting them know it was there, but that was it. No more strings.
From that place, I learned that setting boundaries for myself and for these people in my life was healthy and good. It was not cutting them out of my life or denying them what they need. It was giving myself freedom so that they got the best I could give them. It was keeping myself in a space where I felt safe and could not be manipulated or tricked, all while still loving and supporting them, not enabling them. Enabling disguises itself as love, but I realized with some help that it’s really not love all. It looks like supporting someone and loving them on the outside, but truthfully it’s just giving in to what they want and only treating the surface problem. That’s hard to recognize in the middle of things though.
Loving any other human being is complex and often times messy. Truly loving others is hard because it often leads to hard conversations and setting aside ourselves in order to serve someone else. Loving those struggling with addiction in our lives is no different. It’s day by day. It’s asking ourselves if we are just choosing what is easy or if we are choosing the best option for them and us. Are we supporting? Are we listening? Are we showing up and inviting them in?
Mostly what I’ve learned by loving the people fighting addiction around me is that I’m human too, and I’m going to mess up. I am going to make the wrong choice. I am going to yell on the phone when maybe that’s not what they needed. And that’s okay. I will find my way back, and I will apologize, then I will keep showing up. Because that’s what loving anyone is; it’s continuing to show up for them.
My running list of things to remember when trying to love those in your life struggling with addiction:
Have grace for them and for yourself
Know the difference between enabling and supporting
Remember that tough love is a thing
Boundaries are good for you and for them
Be someone that they can rely on
Take care of yourself so that you can be there for them
There is no formula for loving people well. It’s messy and complicated, and you often just figure it out as you go. (This applies not just to addicts but to everyone in your life.)
Keep showing up