Hello dear friends… I write to you today because God has really put it on my heart share a few tidbits of what I wish I would have known when my husband started struggling with addiction a few years ago. When I first realized he had a serious problem, I did not know where to begin in terms of what I should be are of, where to get information, how to get support, and how to navigate the roller coaster of loving someone struggling with addiction. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a therapist, I’m not an expert, and everyone’s story is a bit different - but I do want to share my own experience here in case it might help anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation:
“Addiction is a disease” vs. “addiction is a choice.” When you first attempt to understand addiction, you’ll likely be presented with two philosophies: 1) That addiction is a choice and 2) that addiction is a disease. I admit I struggled with balancing this concept in my mind and went back and forth at different times. It’s certainly not a cold that you catch, but it’s not a simple choice to stop either. Through my research and experience, here’s what I’ve come to accept: A person has the choice to drink or take a drug - every single time. However, addiction is also physiological. For an addict, they initially turn to the drug or alcohol to get that “high” feeling. Over time, their tolerance grows and eventually they need more and more of the drug to achieve that high. As it gets more severe, other things in the addict’s life that used to make them happy no longer generate feelings of happiness that compare with the high so they began to turn away from their families, friends, and activities they used to enjoy and focus more and more on acquiring their drug and feeling the high. As time goes on and as the addiction gets more severe, it becomes less about feeling good and more about escaping the painful withdrawal symptoms of NOT having the drug. The body gets so dependent that it is very hard to quit. Due to the physiological changes addiction causes in the brain and the body, it is a very difficult choice to make to stay sober, but ultimately, it is still a choice. It’s a choice to get help, it’s a choice to take another drink.
Once I had a greater understanding of the the physiological aspects of addiction, I had a lot more compassion. My heart absolutely breaks for those who struggle with addiction in any form. However, I realized I cannot be ALL compassion. The fact it is “a disease” doesn’t free the addict from the responsibility for their choices and the consequences of their actions. I found the best way to navigate through through life with an addict is to have a heart filled with compassion and also incredibly strong boundaries. It’s so important to see the humanity in the person struggling and want deeply for them to get better. I found it helpful maintain the perspective that “this is a really good person with a seriously crippling mental health problem”. Love the person, but protect yourself from the disease.
Addiction is stronger than you think. Looking back, I was very naive about how strong of a foothold addiction can have on a person. It can be very hard for some people to quit, even once they recognize they have a problem and recognize they want to change. Relapses are extremely common. It’s often hard for a person to do it on their own, and often times counselors, sponsors, 12-step programs, intensive outpatient therapy programs, or 30-day inpatient rehab programs are needed to help the addict break free of the addiction, and even then, those don’t always work. The hardest part for me to witness was how much addiction has the potential to change someone… I relate it to Alzheimer’s or dementia. Addiction can get so severe that it can literally change the way a person’s brain functions and can change someone’s personality. It’s like you know they are in there somewhere, but the disease has taken over the person you thought you knew. It’s heartbreaking to witness the one you love waste away in front of your eyes. It can feel like a death.
Trust your gut. If you’re thinking your loved one is drinking or using, odds are that they are. Though I often doubted my instincts in the thick of it, in hindsight my gut was NEVER wrong. Addicts can be amazingly good liars. They operate in secrecy and love to cast doubt on your suspicions, which can make you feel like you are crazy. It’s often hard to tell what is true and what is a lie, what is up and what is down. It can leave you feeling like you don’t have your footing and leave you second guessing everything. Trust your gut and at the very least, acknowledge and honor your feelings. A practice that helped me is deciding that the facts don’t always matter. If your loved one is acting in ways that make you concerned, you have permission to put up a boundary to protect yourself based on that feeling alone. You don’t have to have the PROOF of them being intoxicated to justify you invoking your boundaries.
It’s more common than you think. Another extremely difficult thing for me at the beginning was that I felt really isolated and alone because I didn’t know anyone else who had gone through what I was going through. Once I opened up to people about what was going on, I was shocked by how many people reached out to me to share that they’d experienced (or were experiencing!) something similar. Old friends I followed on social media who looked like they had perfect lives reached out and confided in me that they also found their husbands hiding vodka bottles, lying about their drinking, and were dealing with some of the same heartbreaking issues that I was. I never would have imagined! Definitely know you’re not alone. I wish more people talked about it, which is what I’m trying to do. If you want to talk, reach out to me any time!
You can’t fix it. You can do everything to help the person, but ultimately, they will only get better if THEY are deep down, truly ready to get better. If you have a big heart and are super Type A like I am, you will probably fight with everything in you to fix it until you’ve exhausted every imaginable option and ultimately learn this lesson the hard way… And I get it! And honestly I think sometimes that’s what we have to go through as part of our own coping process... But still, you have to accept that THEIR recovery is not in YOUR hands. Believe me, if it were, my story never would have ended up this way.
Addiction vs. Recovery.
Addiction looks like: secrecy, not caring for themselves, laziness, being short tempered, shucking responsibilities, lying, hiding money, half truths, saying they’re doing “great”, removing safety nets, blaming everyone/everything else for their problems.
Recovery looks like: Admitting when they are struggling, asking for help, being transparent, being proactive, taking care of their responsibilities, taking care of themselves, working to make amends.
Addicts actions and words can be very hurtful. This is hands down - for me - the hardest thing about addiction. If someone is severely struggling, it can cause them to do things you never thought they would do and say things you never thought they would say. They can be hurtful, mean, manipulative, and throw their values - and the things that they value - to the wayside. It’s hard to process - it does not make sense!- and its incredibly heartbreaking. If you are very close to the person, they may even try to place the blame for their problems on you. You are not the enemy. There is a greater enemy at work. I think of the verse Ephesians 6:12 “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Though they may make it seem like you are the enemy, the real enemy is the battle they are fighting within themselves. It has helped me to take the perspective that the actions - as personal as they feel - are not personal. It has expanded my ability to forgive beyond what I thought was ever capable. That being said, you may also reach a point where you need to separate yourself from the person and the turmoil and pain they are causing. THAT IS OK. It does not mean you don’t love them or support them or want them to get better. Sometimes you have to make the choice to protect yourself and protect your kids, if your loved one is not making that choice.
Talk to someone. It is definitely hard to open up to people at first because you might not fully understand what is going on at first, and you want to protect the privacy or your loved one. Find someone you trust that you can confide in. Open up to your friends and family because you will need support! I also recommend finding a good therapist who understands addiction. (And a side note - it took me three therapists before I found who I clicked with. Don’t give up!) Talking to God, praying, and having faith also was the KEY for me to get through the worst of it and the hard moments and the grief that I still struggle with today. I have a whole lot more to say on this subject but I’ll save that for another day :) But truly, God knows your pain, He knows the struggle. He’s there at 2:00 in the morning when everyone else is asleep. He’ll make a path for you through the darkness. <3
Have hope. Lastly, I know it’s so hard to watch someone you love struggle with addiction. It’s the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever dealt with - it is sad for the addict and sad for everyone who loves them. I’m happy to say that most people I know and I’ve met who have struggled with addiction have overcome it. So as negative as this whole post may feel, there is hope! Know how hard it can be, prepare for the worst, but hope for the best. At my first Al Anon meeting (and every meeting since!), they’ve said “you will be okay whether your loved one stops drinking or not.” It is true - no matter what happens, you will be ok. I am living proof!
Thanks for bearing with this really long post! I just felt like I needed to share.