Since the month of February is often associated with love, I wanted to share with you what I've learned about loving an addict. Early on, when my son was in active addiction, I was often told that "tough love" was needed and that I just needed to "kick him out of the house!". Since then, I've come to know that "tough love" is not about me being tough. It's about having the strength and courage to make the right decision at the right time.
Before coming face to face with my own son's addiction, I was not a stranger to the family disease of addiction. Although I was away at college and then later married and working during my brother's active addiction, I was often called to my parents’ home for yet another “intervention”. Basically, these interventions consisted of what I called the three T’s: Talk, Tears, and Threats. You see, my family was very much like yours. We all loved an addict and we were trapped on a roller-coaster of painful emotions until each of us had to make an independent decision as to whether or not we were getting off. I remember very well the night I told my parents that I was not to be called to another one of these family meetings. I was done and I wanted off that roller coaster. Of course, I couldn’t understand at the time how tough it was for my parents to do the same.
However, in time, I too found myself in that exact situation and came to fully understand just how tough it is to love an addict.
I’m sure that you’ve also heard the phrase “tough love” and how it may be necessary for you to take action that requires you getting tough, especially as it relates to loving someone with an addiction. Loving an addict is extremely tough, but it’s still love. And when drugs and and alcohol become more important to them than anything else, the love between family members becomes very strained often resulting in broken, fragmented relationships. In an attempt to deal with this, family members typically turn to a love that actually enables the person to continue bad behavior. Or attempt to protect them or rescue them from the consequences of their choices because it is just too painful to see someone you love in so much pain. You may also have feelings of guilt or confusion. But when you attempt to protect them from their own behavior, you are actually getting in the way to finding a solution to the problem.
We begin to learn that taking on the responsibility of someone else’s problems only weakens them. When someone we love isn’t given the opportunity to suffer the consequences of their actions and learn from his mistakes, they become emotionally crippled and lack the ability to solve or overcome problems on their own. When we can clearly see that enabling, rescuing and denying doesn’t work, we become open to a solution of loving differently.
The toughest part of this kind of love is taking the necessary action to draw a line in the sand and set some firm boundaries or limits on bad behaviors. Obviously, this is a process that gets easier with time. We learn to be firm, but loving in communicating a need for change – now. Also, we gain the tools needed to make some tough decisions when the time comes. I'll never forget the night that I did indeed tell my son that he could no longer live in our house. No yelling or screaming, just a calm, but firm request for him to leave. I'll always look back and be thankful for my courage then as it was a catalyst for getting him into a treatment program.
Several years later, that same strength and courage surfaced when he was incarcerated with multiple felony charges, all stemming from his choices as he had not yet surrendered the drugs and alcohol. Deep down, he knew he needed help when he became a client at Purple. Like you, I wasn’t about to give up hope that we could find a solution to the problems we were facing.
Thankfully, support group meetings, education, and listening to others had taught me to communicate in a calm, supportive but direct way. Learning to listen, listen, listen was important part of this process. Instead of trying to find what I thought was the solution, I started listening to those who knew much more than I. Ironically, this included learning to give my son my undivided attention, which allowed him to open up and share.
So, it’s not really about getting tough. It’s actually about having the courage to make the right decision at the right time. It’s also about having the courage to change your reactions.
Maintaining the courage to allow natural consequences to occur without intervening is the kind of love that I am talking about. When we understand the true nature of addiction, we can face the truth even when we don’t want to. We open ourselves up to see our own behavior more clearly. With time, we set boundaries with the addict when they ask for something that will only hurt them-or you- further. A phrase I’ve repeated numerous times in my own journey of recovery – Don’t Stand in the Way of his Recovery.
The last thing about this kind of love is actually about loving yourself. It’s so important not to neglect your own needs and emotions. Love yourself enough to talk to someone and get support or help when needed. We say this to our clients all the time. Ask for help. They do not recover alone and neither do we.