A guest blog provided by Emily Tomkins – SMART Recovery Family & Friends Facilitator
If you are a friend or family member of someone with an addiction, you likely have a lot of big feelings about the situation. One feeling that we often hear expressed in our Family & Friends program is, “Help! I’m losing my mind!”
Before we go much further, let me be very clear – no, you’re not. But it might feel like it if you have a loved one with a life-threatening addiction, within a broken healthcare system, within a society that doesn’t understand.
It is easy to feel like you’re losing your mind with all of the conflicting advice given to you by those around you. You might have been told that you’re heartless for telling your loved one they can’t live with you, or that you’re an enabler for allowing them to stay. You might have heard that nothing you do will ever change their behavior and that any contact allows them to continue (even though we just established that nothing you do will ever change their behavior). You might have shown up to family day at your loved one’s treatment to be informed that your “co-dependence” keeps them addicted.
None of these things are true, but they are just a few of the messages family and friends of someone with an addiction might receive.
You might have been told truthfully that insurance won’t cover your loved one’s treatment, or your loved one might not have insurance at all, or they may simply not be willing to approach treatment yet. This might feel like watching a cancer patient refuse chemo.
You might have been told that your own happiness is entirely your responsibility. This one is half true. It’s ultimately your job to protect yourself and move forward with life, but this platitude doesn’t honor the fear of watching someone struggle, or the pain of repeated personal betrayals. It places another burden on you as you navigate an already difficult situation: the burden of trying to be okay with it all, lest you fail at someone else’s idea of a life well lived.
So what’s the good news, then?
There are treatment professionals who understand your challenges and value your involvement in your loved one’s care. There are also professionals who can provide the understanding and knowledge to help you move through life with (or without) your loved one.
If you routinely leave appointments feeling upset or misunderstood, you’re not doing anything wrong. Try a different professional.
There are also regular (non-professional) people who can listen and understand what you’re going through. Maybe you can think of some already. Maybe not. But with some digging, you can probably find them through SMART or another support group. They might even be hiding in the plain sight of your day-to-day routine.
Worrying about a loved one can sap us of energy and make reaching out harder. Foster relationships with the people in your life in ways that are meaningful and attainable for you.
You may be thinking, “This is all very comforting, Emily, but I still feel like I’m coming unhinged. I’ve said and done some things I’m really not proud of in reaction to my loved one’s use.”
You’re not alone in these feelings. Are you co-dependent? Who knows? Co-dependency is not an official diagnostic term, and is used to mean anything from keeping someone in addiction for one’s own gain (an insidious accusation that piles on unwarranted self-blame) to being greatly affected by the actions of others (a descriptor which fits all healthy humans). SMART doesn’t use labels, such as co-dependent, but you can use it if you choose and find it helpful to get a handle on your own thoughts. Feel free to toss it if you find it harmful.
A lot of our messed-up behaviors are a reaction to the trauma of watching someone very close to us suffer and cause damage — often very seriously or over a long period of time. We may also be acting out trauma from our past, which brings its fault lines into our present-day relationships.
If you fly off the handle, your actions may not be justified but they are understandable. You deserve self-compassion, the compassion of friends, and the compassion of a counselor who can help you work through things without judgment.
“Okay, it’s not me. So, it’s my loved one who’s losing it! I wouldn’t be like this if it weren’t for them.”
Actually, your loved one’s behavior makes sense too. It might not be okay or even tolerable, but it makes sense. Their brain is stuck in a cycle of feeling bad, seeing a drug or activity as a solution, doing it, feeling worse, and so on. Part of their brain is telling them that they need to keep using to survive. Imagine the sacrifices you’d make to feel better if you thought you were dying!
Now come back to the real world and think about the challenges you’ve had with behavior change. Ever tried to start a habit of hitting the gym? Ever tried to cut out sugar from your diet, or stop watching TV? How far did you get?
If you can find a headspace that (even temporarily) allows you to understand your loved one’s perspective, you might be able to listen better, have better conversations, and encourage them on their path to sobriety. You might feel relieved knowing that the person you love is still in there and that it’s genuinely really, really hard for them to control their actions. Or you might feel none of the above, and that’s okay too. Knowing why something upsetting happened doesn’t always lessen its impact.
Addiction is tough and our culture makes it tougher. If you’re struggling, it’s not your fault and you’re not alone. Though I can’t pretend you’ll find them on the first try, there are folks who can help. Ultimately, I want you to know that you can trust your gut. If something feels wrong, speak up. You know your loved one better than most people, and you know yourself better than anyone. Take that knowledge into support groups, therapy sessions, and your life in general, and don’t be afraid to use it.
About SMART Recovery Family & Friends
SMART Recovery Family & Friends helps those who are affected by the substance abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, or other addictions of a loved one. Our program is a science-based, secular alternative to Al-Anon and Johnson Intervention, and our method is based on the tools of SMART Recovery and CRAFT (Community Reinforcement Approach & Family Training). CRAFT aims to teach family and friends self-protection and non-confrontational skills to help their addicted loved one find recovery.
You can find Family & Friends meetings both in-person and online.
- Find a local meeting: Please click here to search for a local SMART Recovery Family & Friends meeting.
- Register for online meetings: To participate in the online Family & Friends meetings, registration is required at the SMART Recovery Online website: smartrecovery.org/community.
If you are interested in starting a Family & Friends meeting in your local area, we would love to hear from you. Please click here to learn more about starting a Family & Friends meeting.
About SMART Recovery
Founded in 1994, SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) uses science-based techniques that have proven to be effective in helping people recover from addiction problems involving any substance or behavior, including such things as alcohol, drugs, gambling, over-eating, shopping and internet use.
Each week, many thousands of people discuss recovery progress and challenges at more than 3,000 in-person meetings each week in 23 countries, daily online meetings and 24/7/365 internet message board forums and chat rooms.
Participants use SMART to assume responsibility for their own recovery and become empowered using its 4-Point Program®: building motivation; coping with urges; managing thoughts, feelings and behaviors; and living a balanced life.
For more information, please visit www.smartrecovery.org.