When someone in your life has an addiction, the focus is usually on that person. Addictions take many forms, from substance abuse to workaholism and overeating, and the effects on that person are often very obvious. Chaos, conflict, lost jobs, unpaid bills, arrests, jail, hospitalization, institutionalization, even death. Less obvious are the effects on the people around addicts – friends, family, coworkers. In an effort to help, the ones who care can easily overextend themselves – covering lies, absences, and overdue bills – usually to no avail. No outside person can change an addict’s choices, only an inner decision to change will have any effect.
If nothing we do can has an effect on the addict, how can we possibly find peace of mind? When we care about someone, it’s painful to see them spiral down into danger, debt, and despair. Sometimes we spin down with them. But there is hope. Even if the person with the compulsion seems hell-bent on self-destruction, we can find peace and serenity.
First let’s look at what most of us tend to try, due to our social and cultural conditioning.
The Things We Do, for the Addict, that Don’t Help
Taking on others’ responsibilities – When someone you love can’t keep a job, pay their bills, or otherwise manage daily life, it’s very tempting to step in and “help” by loaning money, covering bad checks, cleaning up behind them, and the list goes on. Our actions may seem to help them continue on for a little while, but we can’t keep another person on track forever. By taking on responsibilities that they are capable of, we rob them of the dignity of making their own mistakes. We keep them from suffering the consequences of their behavior, and thus further away from deciding they might need help.
Enabling when we think we’re helping – What we’ve been raised to think is helpful, is actually harmful. By taking on someone else’s life responsibilities, we enable them to continue their addiction. Enabling is not helping.
Lecturing, haranguing, and otherwise “persuading” the addict that they need help – Do you like being told what’s wrong with you and what to do about it? Neither does an addict. There is nothing you can say or do that will convince another person to change. You get to participate in a lot of arguments and usually end up frustrated. Nothing changes, except you’ve wasted breath and energy that could be put toward activities that benefit your health.
Neglecting ourselves in trying to “fix” the addict’s problems – Because an addict is often an endless pit of need, we may become so focused on their crises and chaos that we forget to take care of ourselves. It could be as basic as not getting enough sleep (for worrying or waiting up or making bail), losing appetite or forgetting meals, or having no time for exercise. Effects can spread to impacting work – coming in late or leaving early, conflict in other relationships, forgetting to pay bills or not having enough due to loans, even neglecting children’s needs. When someone else’s problems seem life-threatening, it’s hard not to sacrifice ourselves – it’s part of our cultural upbringing.
You may notice that a lot of the things on the “don’t” list focus on the addict. The list of things you can do is all about you:
The Things You Can Do, for You, that Bring Peace
Learn about detachment – Detachment is based on the concept that every adult is responsible for his/her own thoughts, feelings, and actions. “I” stop where “you” begin. The trick is recognizing what is your responsibility and what is someone else’s. Many of us are raised with codependent values – “It’s my job to make my spouse happy,” “I can’t be happy if my child is in a bad mood,” “If someone close to me is in pain, I must solve their problems.” The first step toward detachment is learning to pause and question whether we are taking on responsibility for someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.
Distinguish between enabling and helping – If I offer help to someone who is capable of doing for themselves but is choosing not to, I am probably enabling. If the other person has demonstrated they are capable and willing to take responsibility, but needs a little boost, I might actually be able to help.
- Example 1: My 18-year-old son needs help with his rent this month; he dropped out of college, recently lost a job, and spends every night out with friends drinking. In this case, offering to pay his rent is enabling him to continue down a destructive path.
- Example 2: My 18-year-old son needs help with his rent this month; he’s going to college classes, waiting for his financial aid to start up, and his roommate just moved out. If I offer to pay his rent this month, it’s a good bet he’ll be able to pick up the responsibility soon, and I really am helping him.
Recognize that you are not God – Americans are ruled by self-will run riot. We think we can be anybody, do anything, and solve any problem to make our dreams real. We’re a practical, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, get-it-done people. The characteristic certainly serves us in most circumstances. But it leads to trouble when we think we can run other people’s lives. If we think we know what’s best for them, there’s a good chance we’re trying to play God in their lives. That’s a big responsibility and pretty much impossible to deliver on. Better to let go and believe that something bigger than you is guiding that person’s life.
Focus on “fixing” yourself, not others – The unpleasant truth is that when we focus on others – especially someone in such blatant need as an addict – we get to avoid our own issues. Fixing someone else is a distraction from “taking care of business” inside ourselves. The best way we can help others, even an addict, is by taking steps to be as healthy are possible in our words and deeds. This could include practicing self-care, taking responsibility for our reactions and emotions, avoiding blame of others (especially the addict), and finding help and support from healthy sources.
How have you found serenity when someone you love has an addiction?