Recently I had a long conversation with a friend also in recovery. The conversation was about the challenges and benefits of being in relationships with people not in recovery.
We affectionately refer to people who do not have similar challenges of trauma and recovery as “normals”. I understand that this terminology may seem self-loathing or judgmental to others, but that is not the intent. We’ve both reached a point where it is possible to joke about our challenges and not take ourselves and others so seriously. In our context “normal” is a convenient descriptor for those in our lives who find some of our challenges difficult to understand or relate to for the simple reason that they do not have those shared experiences.
I see having more people like this in my life than ever before a good marker for my own mental health. I believe there is truth to the fact that you are more likely to attract people to you who match your frequency (for lack of a better word). I see it as encouraging that I am interacting with more “healthy” people, hoping that it also suggests my mental health is improving.
However, there are also challenges in these relationships. I know I’m not alone in that change is an ongoing process and that self-improvement takes daily effort and attention. There are times that I revert back to my old behaviours, thought processes, and difficult belief systems. In those moments, the differences between myself and the “normals” are underlined. There are times that I need space and time to override my instincts and approach my interactions thoughtfully and compassionately.
It is painfully difficult to explain this process and the “why” it came to be with people who haven’t had this challenge or experience. I’ve noticed that although many of these newer connections care deeply for my wellbeing, constantly explaining my status to them also drives them away. It seems to present me as this deeply sensitive being and makes them wary of interacting with me. It makes them self-conscious of their interactions and suggests I need more special treatment than I do. Often the only special treatment I need is a few moments of compassionate time and space.
I realize that mentally healthy people do not need to constantly bring up their past as a justification for their present actions. They exist and they appreciate the moments as they come with confidence, humility, and presence.
Among other things to come from this open discussion was our attempt to approach explaining what recovery from codependency is like to someone with no relatable experience. It came out something like this:
“A long time ago, before I was able to defend myself, a person I cared about very much told me lies about myself. I believed them and, until recently, built my life based on those misconceptions of myself and what I thought I deserved. I chose people, places, and things that enforced those ideas and rejected anything that suggested it may not be true. Some day I would like to be like the happy looking people in the coffee commercials, but currently I’m more like the mucous in the Mucinex commercials”
It’s common for a person who loves someone suffering from addiction to reach a point in their relationship where they start asking questions like:
I’ve done X, Y, and Z for them! Why don’t they see how they are hurting themselves?
Don’t they care?
Does anyone ever recover?
How do I know this is their rock bottom?
I remember this point. It was the worst period of my life to date. Essentially, I was trying to decide if I would stay or let go. I was trying to figure out how much longer I would have to hold on, how much more pain I would need to endure in order for him to realize he needed to change. I was trying to decide if it would be more painful to stay or start over.
I couldn’t admit it but all I wanted was for someone to tell me it was going to be ok.
I remember vividly how painful, hard and desperate that place is. Looking at my life now, I hardly recognize the person I was then. I am still dealing with the shame, fear, and guilt from the actions I took in that dark place.
When I ended the relationship with my addict, I had not gotten any help or support. I’d essentially shouldered everything alone for the better part of a decade. I’d long since stopped the little bit of talking I did about our relationship; essentially because I didn’t like the feedback that I was getting. I was in denial of his illness and was clinging to a lot of more convenient, but false, justifications for what was happening.
I ended our relationship impulsively.
One day, he did something so blatantly unethical that I couldn’t ignore it and, like a rubber band, I snapped. There was no more discussion, no more compassion; I needed him gone and I executed that in a desperate, dramatic, and disrespectful way. I know deep down I hoped that would push him into getting help, but manipulation and coercion (even with good intentions) rarely gets good results.
I did a whole other post on why I try not to give people advice (find that here), but I wanted to share some things I learned; things I wish I’d known before I exercised my choice to stay or go.
Don’t Hate the Person, Hate the Disease
Anyone who has lived with an addict understands that there is a haunting duality to this condition. One minute your loved one is a caring and thoughtful Dr. Jekyll and the next a malicious and cruel Mr. Hyde. This is part of what keeps us stuck in these relationships, we catch heartbreaking glimpses of what appears to us to be our loved one fighting to get out. We cling to this idea when Mr. Hyde comes out to play with increasing frequency.
There is some controversy around this point; some people say that addiction is a symptom of the very serious and incurable personality disorder of narcissism, but I personally think that, in most cases, the narcissistic and unethical action we see are symptoms of addiction. An addict’s awareness is foggy and their priorities are always in a state of flux: their substance of choice is number one and everything else is ordered and reordered based on what is falling apart the fastest.
It’s not that they don’t care about you, you just can’t be their number one priority. Addiction doesn’t share, it is not a reflection of your worth.
Some People Don’t Get Better
I would love to tell you that your loved one will get better, but the truth is nobody knows.
A friend once told me a story about an alcoholic who passed out drunk on some train tracks. During the night, both his legs were severed by a passing train and, miraculously, he survived. If ever you would think there was a rock bottom moment, this would be it, right? While getting discharged from the hospital, this man was more concerned with the logistics of getting to the bar in a wheelchair than anything else in the world.
I don’t know why someone one day looks at their kids and decides they need to get better. I’m not sure why faced with the loss of their career something finally clicks for another person that they need to get some help. I’m not sure why others can lose everything and still not change.
I just don’t know.
What I do know is that addiction is a progressive and deadly disease and that as long as someone is sick they are putting their lives and the people in proximity in danger for a drink, a smoke, a big gambling win, Big Macs, working themselves to exhaustion, or sex with a stranger. That is the inconvenient truth.
Stopping is Only the First Step
I used to think that recovery was as simple as choosing not to drink, not to smoke, going on a diet, not gambling, etc. I thought it was about willpower and discipline.
Stopping is essential. In order to recover, you need to regain awareness, you need to stop numbing. You can’t have clarity leaning on something that protects you from appreciating the gravity of your situation.
However, that isn’t all of it. There are many reasons why we numb ourselves. I saw a meme not too long ago that said “trauma is the real gateway drug” and that resonated with me. I don’t think it’s uncommon for people to choose numbing over dealing with pain. I also think there are many other reasons that lead people down the path of addiction.
Understanding this now, I wish I’d known it then. In evaluating what I needed for myself and how to help my partner the right way I wish I’d understood that it wasn’t as easy as stopping. I wish I’d understood that real help for someone in recovery is supporting them (not enabling them) while they maneuver the long road towards mental health.
It is also very unlikely that recovery is possible without some kind of outside and unbiased help. If you’ve spent your whole life coping a certain way how could you be equipped to change without outside guidance? You’ve never learned how to think another way, why wouldn’t you need guidance? Also, it is next to impossible to be able to objectively take the right kind of help from someone who is personally invested in your recovery (e.g. family, friend, spouse, etc).
There are no shortcuts. There are no quick fixes. It is not as simple as stopping the behaviour, a person also needs to deal with whatever is driving them to do what they do in the first place. This is how we reduce the chance of relapse; but it is also worth stating that recovery often includes relapse as people are confronted with the gravity of change and revert back to the comfortable and familiar.
Recovery is a roller coaster. That is just the nature of profound change.
So what now?
No one can tell you how any of this will turn out. If they do, they aren’t being honest. There are no guarantees in life and there is no simple solution to this situation.
Some of you will decide to stay and others will decide to go. There is not a right or universal answer to every addiction scenario. There is no reliable checklist of symptoms that will help predict if someone will be successful in recovery, or if they will even get that far. There is also no guarantee that they will not relapse.
I understand there is an immense amount of guilt around these kinds of decisions. I understand the feeling of being crushed under the weight. I remind us all that we didn’t cause the addiction, we can’t control it, and we can’t change it. Like it or not, we all have the free will to make all kinds of poor decisions. True help for an active addict is learning to detach with love and interacting by helping not enabling action. I would challenge you to consider that not being able to accomplish this is likely hurting the addict more than saving them; that in this case, leaving may be the most compassionate and loving act even if it immediately appears to make the addictive behavior worse.
Finally, I will suggest you seek support before you have to choose. It is possible that there will come a point where that is a reality. Speaking from my own experience, leaving or staying was just one step in my recovery — but a very significant one.
Reflecting on my choices and their consequences, the only lingering regret I have is not that I wish I’d stayed. My only regret is my certainty that I would have been more confident and less traumatized making that choice if I had already been working a recovery program.
If you follow me on other platforms, you probably know I have soft spots for Brene Brown and Russell Brand. I could never have imagined the circumstances that would bring these two minds together to create, but I’m thrilled to live in a universe where this happened.. and my mind is blown by the result.
For those of you not familiar with Russell Brand, he is an outspoken comedian, actor, author, and activist. Although I did enjoy his outlandish comedy, I’ve found a new level of respect for him in sharing his experiences finding sobriety after a tumultuous and public struggle with drug addiction.
Brene got a brief nod in a past blog post, with a small reference to one of the first (and most powerful) books I read in recovery Daring Greatly. Holding a PHD in social work, she does research into vulnerability, shame, courage, and empathy. All topics that easily bring me to a cold sweat.
Although I’m familiar with some of Russel’s writings and videos on addiction recovery, I was not familiar with his podcast, “Under the Skin”. On this platform, he interviews a variety of influential public figures and the talk is anything but small. In his conversation with Brene they covered a plethora of hard topics including (but not limited to): handling tough toddlers, addiction, and boundaries.
The interview is over an hour and those interested in the full experience (at the time of this writing) can find it easily on spotify, youtube, or a number of other platforms. The part that really jumped out at me was a discussion on framing perception by asking the question “are people really doing the best they can?”
Although this discussion includes references to God and religion, it could easily be approached without so I encourage you to look beyond that if it does not resonate with you.
Like Brene, I’ve spent most of my life believing that most people (including myself) could be doing better. I met mistakes and poor choices as a personal reflection of value. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time being wounded and hurt by people not living up to my expectations for their behaviour, which in turn impacted my ability to be compassionate and live a peaceful existence. I spent an embarrassing amount of time being pissed off and burning bridges believing most times that people were either lazy or didn’t care.
I recognize that approaching life in this way is not only self-righteous and douchy, it isn’t fair. Reflecting on my lowest points there were days where the best I could do was not great. I remember not too long ago where the simple act of getting out of bed and to work was a monumental achievement. During that time, I was not a great friend, relative, or human. I was in survival mode and that was truly all I had in me.
At the end of the clip, Brene retells her husbands’ take on this huge existential question. Responding to her prodding, “are people really doing the best they can every day”, he says, profoundly “I have no idea. But what I do know is my life is better when I assume they are” (mic drop).
This really hit me because it illustrates so perfectly what many of us fundamentally struggle with: what is ours to control. A common concept in recovery literature is the challenge to accept the truth that you are only in control of your own thoughts, feelings, and actions; not the thoughts, feelings and actions of others.
In this context, whether a person is actually doing the best they possibly can is irrelevant because it is out of our control; but how we frame our thoughts and perception is totally within our power. I can choose to believe that the hurt someone inflicts on me is a reflection of my value, or I can believe that, for better or for worse, they are doing the best they can and choose my actions calmly, intelligently, and compassionately.
Think of your family as a circus troupe with its own mini structure. There is division of labour, responsibilities, and roles that are assigned to each member which determine the success of the overall machine. Like that travelling show, the ease of functioning, success, and longevity of the production depends on a number of factors, including: each member’s expectations, how they all communicate, how conflict is managed, and how all the members interact with the outside world.
Spending extended time on the road, performing and interacting with the public together will shape the personality and behaviour of each member. And likewise, any change in part of the troupe will affect the rest of the show. For example, if the ringmaster is very rigid and controlling, the rest of the members will respond by becoming less responsible to avoid conflict.
Now, consider the ringmaster has an active struggle with addiction. He starts to behave irresponsibly; breaks the promise he made to the acrobats to repair the trapeze because he used that money to support his habit, disappears for periods of time without telling the circus manager when he can anticipate his return, and tells the clowns they are fat and worthless. The whole troupe is affected by his choices and need to adjust themselves accordingly. Because of the nature of addiction, these changes usually happen slowly while the system makes small unconscious adjustments that add up over a long period of time.
Unfortunately, the effects of the addiction likely do not stop there. Overworked and stressed at not having a front man for the night’s performance, the circus manager takes out his anger on his wife and kids who in turn take out their feelings on others. The clowns, suffering from low self-esteem slowly develop their own chemical dependency issues. Lastly, one of the acrobats develops stress-induced insomnia and eventually injures himself on the job. I’ve seen addiction compared more than once to dropping a pebble in a still pond, perhaps you can see why?
Theories on the interaction of social experiences with the psyche form the foundation of psychology as we know it today. Although psychologists are still arguing about the exact way these experiences influence us it is clear that the family system has a profound impact on the subconscious (or the part of the mind which is just out of awareness but drives a person’s actions and feelings).
Living with addiction is living with chaos. It is nonsensical, ruthless, and unpredictable. It is not unusual for people who live with another person’s addiction to develop their own mental, physical or emotional chronic and long-term health problems. I’m no exception – for most of my life I’ve struggled with a cocktail of painful emotions, not limited to: guilt, shame, anger, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and fear. I’ve also suffered from several chronic health issues with no clear origin. Connecting with others impacted by family addiction has shown me that I come by this honestly; it is startling how many similar stories and challenges I’ve heard.
It has shown me that anyone from any socio-economic, cultural, or spiritual background can be impacted by addiction or by someone else’s addiction.
Like many people who have lived with addiction I didn’t understand why I would need to work on myself. After all, they have the problem, amiright?! I focused on fixing my loved ones because I thought that if they got over it my life would be f-i-n-e.
The truth about addiction is this: you didn’t cause their addiction, you can’t control it, but you can unknowingly contribute to it and further suffering. We do this mostly by not having appropriate boundaries and knowledge. The most common example of this is “enabling” which is defined as doing anything for the addict they could be doing for themselves if they were sober. The reason this is bad is that it could prolong the addiction by protecting the addict from the consequences of their actions and thus their incentive to consider a different path. Enabling also inadvertently sends the message that whatever behaviour it is acting on is acceptable. In our circus example, enabling would be making excuses for the ringmaster’s poor behaviour versus a healthy behaviour like supporting him in his recovery effort by helping him look up local support group meetings.
Recovery for the family of an addict is focusing on awareness and emphasizing the things you can control: your own thoughts, feelings and actions. It’s using those things to develop a life that is whole, healthy, and fulfilling. It is finding ways to enjoy the life you have that doesn’t depend on validation from the system you have no control over. It’s learning that sometimes you need to go through a certain degree of discomfort and pain to grow. It’s understanding that the best way to break the cycle of addiction is to learn how to prioritize yourself and allow others to make choices and feel their consequences. It’s embracing the importance of healthy connections and what they look like. It’s accepting that the best way to help someone is to support them in taking care of themselves.