Addiction, Denial, and Self Care

“Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”   Parker Palmer

Addictions are a family issue. How a parent, or a loved one, deals (or doesn’t) with a loved one’s addiction, or other mental health issues, is an issue I see in my practice on a daily basis. The pain and feelings of helplessness that come from loving someone who is in trouble can be profound. We want to “protect” and “save” those we love from pain, from sadness, and from the consequences of their actions. Because that is what a parent, or child, or spouse, or lover does! Or not…

Some of the greatest challenges to the recovery of an addict are the status quo, and the illusion that if we just close our eyes and hope long and hard enough that things will magically change.

There are three rules in alcoholic families:

  1. don’t talk about it,
  2. don’t confront it,
  3. shelter and protect it,

In other words, don’t feel, don’t trust, and don’t talk! When there is an alcoholic/addict in a family, the family typically adapts to the addict by taking on behaviors that help reduce stress, deal with uncertainty, and allow the family to function within the craziness and fear created by the alcoholic. The problem with these behaviors is that, while they tend to reduce stress, they do not reduce anxiety. Instead, they allow the alcoholic/addict to continue in his or her behavior.

We worry, we stress, and we vainly try to control the situation – control the addict and their behaviors. But worrying, obsessing, and controlling are illusions. They are tricks we play on ourselves to give us, not control over our addicted loved ones, but rather the illusion of control.

We are desperate to control the uncontrollability of an addict because we’re anxious and afraid of what has happened, what might happen, and what is happening. Many of us react as though everything is a crisis because we have lived with so many crises for so long that crisis reaction has become a habit. We worry because we think things shouldn’t be happening the way they are. We stress because we don’t feel good about ourselves. We worry because most people worry. We try to control others because we think we can.

Often this comes from viewing the addict as a reflection of us. We hold the view that the addict is a visible and tangible example of our “failure” as a parent or wife or child or lover. That if only we could love and protect them even more, that they will be magically “saved.” We, and the addicts we love, get stuck in a death spiral of doing the same thing over and over again and not understanding why nothing changes.

It is exhausting!

If there is one common element I see in the parents, and loved ones of addicts, it is exhaustion. And there is a simple – but oh so difficult solution…

Just stop, and try to let go of the illusion of control.

It is as difficult for the loved one of an addict to give up the illusion of control, as it is for the addict to give up their drug of choice. Giving up the illusion of control is called loving detachment.

Detachment is initially difficult to embrace because it goes against the grain of human decency. Detachment seemingly is a contradiction to such valued human qualities such as seeing the goodness in others, selflessness, empathy, compassion, and wisdom of the heart.

But in fact detachment is the embodiment of these human qualities.

Detachment is not an act of judging an alcoholic. Detachment is not an act of condemning an addict. Detachment is not an act of abandoning an alcoholic. Detachment is simply the means by which you can distance yourself from the adverse effects of an alcoholic’s drinking or addicts drug use.

Detaching does not mean we don’t care. It means we learn to love, care, and be involved without going crazy. The only person you can now or ever change is yourself. The only person that it is your business to control is yourself. This is self care.

Those of us who have flown on planes will remember the Flight Attendant’s admonition that if the plane looses air pressure that oxygen masks will drop down from the ceiling… We must put the oxygen mask on ourselves before helping others. This is the key to helping the addicts in our lives – we must look after ourselves first.

Learning self care and loving detachment is very difficult to do alone, and as well as working with a caring therapist (of which there are a many at Talk Touch Move) there are many groups to support you in this journey. Al-Anon/Alteen are a wonderful resource as is Adult Children of Alcoholics. And, if you live in the north of Toronto I would highly recommend Jewish Addiction Community Services Concerned Person’s Group (open to all concerned about another’s addiction).

 “Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others.” Christopher Germer