THE BLOG
09/09/2014 05:32 EDT | Updated 11/09/2014 05:59 EST

Addicts' Loved Ones Need Recovery Too

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September Is Recovery Month

Do you know that September is Recovery Month? I think it's amazing that a whole month has been set aside as a time to honour recovery from addiction -- this shows that the times definitely are a-changin' and that a great many more people are getting the message that recovery truly is possible.

This is great for those who are struggling with addictive behaviours -- from alcohol and drugs to gambling, to compulsive over-spending, to sex addiction, to Internet addiction, to eating disorders -- and everything in between. I'm so happy that the stigma associated with addiction is being lifted in this way and we're finally talking about it!

But what about the loved ones of those who are addicted? These people suffer and struggle right alongside the addicts in their lives. They live in fear 24/7, with frustration, resentment, and confusion. They practice their own addictive behaviours too, such as codependency and people-pleasing, often with a severe lack of personal boundaries.

Are we talking about them yet?

Are they talking to each other?

Finding Your Way Out of Shame

I am an addictions therapist in private practice in Vancouver, B.C., specializing primarily in helping people who are caught in this struggle with addicted loved ones. Although there have recently been a few more resources popping up for them, there is still unfortunately very little help out there for those who are faced with this situation.

For several years, I've been hosting a Facebook page called Loving an Addict, Loving Yourself. A few weeks ago, in a newsletter I sent out, I suggested to the loved ones on my list to come visit my page and 'like' it -- at that time, there were relatively few people there and only about 450 likes. But now, as of this writing, there are nearly 2,000 likes and counting. A true community is developing there -- it's become a place where we can gather and support each other with compassion, understanding, and patience. We no longer have to feel so isolated, alone, and misunderstood.

It's definitely time for those of us who are loved ones of addicts to come out of the shame closet we've been stuck in for such a long time--shame that results from believing that we have somehow caused our addict's addiction and are responsible for making it stop.

That is simply not true -- and I'm on a mission to help loved ones understand this.

The Truth About Addiction -- And Choice

The real truth is that the addicts in our lives are making their own choices. Now, I'm not saying that people choose to become addicted -- I don't believe for a moment that anyone consciously makes that decision. I certainly didn't, when I was in the initial throes of it myself. In fact, most people who do become addicted -- to whatever their addictive behaviour of choice is -- believe that this will never happen to them. The other guy will get hooked, but not them! In their denial, they firmly believe they can handle the great harm they're causing themselves. In the addiction field, we call this "terminal uniqueness" -- when addicts believe that they're so special and unique that it could actually kill them.

The irony about addiction is that it begins as a form of self-care: people just want to feel better. Unfortunately, addiction is a twisted form of self-care that only ends up hurting everyone it touches.

And the truth is that there is always another way to deal with a problematic situation or emotion.

Today, what I know to be true is that remaining in active addiction is indeed a choice. Whether or not addiction is seen as a disease, whether there is a genetic predisposition or it's a learned behaviour from our families of origin, and even though there is definitely brain involvement in addiction -- underneath all of that, continuing to use an addictive behaviour is ultimately a decision addicts make -- and the loved ones are NOT responsible for that choice.

Today, what I know to be true is that we are all powerless over other people -- we simply can't and don't make anyone else's decisions for them. If we were able to do that, there would likely be a lot less addicts in the world! But because it's not possible for us to make any addict stop using, choosing active recovery instead is entirely up to the addict.

What Can Loved One Do Differently?

Despite all the funding cuts in the social services arena these days, there are still a multitude of services and resources available to help addicts who are ready to change their lives. There are detoxes, residential treatment centres, day treatment programs, recovery homes, mental health centres that also deal with addiction (dual diagnosis), 12-Step groups for nearly any addiction you can imagine -- as well as many viable alternatives for those who don't wish to follow those steps. The truth is that there is no excuse anymore for any person to stay entrenched in addiction.

No such luck for the loved ones of those addicts, however. The services for them are few and far between, so a great many friends and family members continue to do the wrong things when trying to help -- simply because no one has ever suggested there might be another way.

And the good news is that there is another way.

In order to change what they can (themselves), loved ones need to understand that even though they did not cause the addiction, they have most likely contributed to it by enabling the addict in some way. Most of you know that you've done things you shouldn't have done -- such as giving money to the addict you love, or allowing him/her to live in your home rent-free with no consequences for negative behaviours. If you've been doing anything like that, please understand that this is not a loving act toward your addict, and it is definitely not self-respectful toward yourself. Please consider changing these actions into much healthier helping behaviours -- ones that often halt addiction right in its tracks.

No More Shame!

Your job as the loved one of an addict is to practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness, and to do the inner work it takes to more deeply understand why you've been enabling in the first place. Your work is to love your addict enough to do the next right thing, over and over again, so that the addiction can actually stop.

You must not take on responsibility that isn't yours. Stop believing that you've somehow caused the addiction or that you can somehow force the addict to quit if you just try hard enough. Stop believing that you are somehow defective because someone you love is making negative choices -- and stop living in shame because of it.

Remember that September is Recovery Month...

Let's hear each other's feelings and stories. Let's continue to come together in places like my Loving an Addict, Loving Yourself Facebook page. Let's learn how to transform our own lives--which is what we can and do control -- and start feeling deep and healthy pride for the positive changes we're choosing to make in ourselves.

Let's continue to come out of that closet of shame and live our own best lives. The ripple effect may well be that as the addict you love sees you role model this new behaviour, they will also choose to make healthier, positive changes in their own lives.

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