It’s a very common explanation, “We had to step away because they were in active addiction.” No one argues with that explanation. It’s actually one of the safest explanations anyone could ever give for pushing away a loved one in need (even if it’s a child).
Addiction is still an automatic scarlet letter. Rather than it being the complex, nuanced, gray-area mental health issue that it is, it’s still commonly seen as a justifiable reason to judge another human being. Look at movies, literature, even the human beings around you, how often is the antagonist an alcoholic or someone with a substance abuse problem.
The person suffering from addiction is rarely painted as someone who is suffering. Rather, the person suffering from addiction is painted as the villain who is undeserving of empathy. This is exacerbating the problem rather than healing it, and it is going to take progressive thinkers to change that reality.
If you are a parent or partner of someone struggling with addiction I hope this can give you some insight into how to help both your loved one and yourself. Yes, addiction comes with a lot of variables and each situation is different, but there are some consistent themes.
- People with an addiction don’t want to have their addiction. This seems so simple and yet it’s a variable that’s rarely factored in. Since people with addiction can’t stop, society links this together with “must not want to stop.” It is absolutely not true. People with addiction have often tried so many ways to stop. In the same way that people with depression and anxiety have tried to claw out of their mental illness in more ways than they can count, so have the people who suffer from addiction. When you approach your loved one in active addiction, approach them with a problem-solving lens, not an observation lens. Addiction is the monster, not your loved one.
- The person with an addiction has probably already been judged and when loved ones add their own judgment it amplifies the stigmatizing. Do you want to know who judges people with addiction? It’s not just friends and family. It’s doctors, nurses, therapists, it’s the people who are supposed to help. The more judged someone feels the less empowered they feel. A disempowered person isn’t going to have a very strong attack against the addiction-monster.
- Putting up boundaries is not the same as withholding support. One is building, the other is breaking. Yes. You need to put up boundaries to protect yourself. Each human being has every right to defend their own mental and physical health. However, defending yourself does not mean withholding support. It does not mean shutting out your loved ones when they are actively trying to heal. There are ways to navigate this fine line, you just have to be willing to find it.
- If you are confused about navigating that fine line and you are genuinely committed to helping your loved one there are many resources to support you. There are support groups for people who have loved ones in active addiction. There are therapists. My personal suggestion is to reach out to someone who is in active recovery. The best way to have empathy in a situation is to talk to someone who already has the empathy you seek.
This article is not meant to suggest that those who love someone with an addiction should completely surrender to the manipulation of addiction. It is quite the opposite. This article serves the purpose of asking those who love someone with an addiction to pick up their swords and turn their attacks towards addiction itself, not towards the sufferer. This takes research and understanding. It also takes a shift in perspective away from stigma and towards factual evidence.
It is difficult to find the line between not enabling and withholding support, but it’s also difficult to love someone with depression. It’s difficult to love someone suffering from PTSD. It’s difficult to love someone who is physically handicapped.
All love and all life comes with obstacles. We don’t withhold support from those we love.