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Monday, January 17, 2011

Loving an Addict Without Losing Yourself

This article is addressed to those of you who are without addictions, but love an addicted person and are committed to being a part of that person’s life.
There are volumes upon volumes of published works on addictive behaviors, co-dependency, enabling and the like. This is not one.  This work simply seeks to help those partners, friends and family members of addicts who are navigating the treatment and recovery processes, while trying to live their daily lives.

Understand that you cannot understand.  That’s the first hurdle.
If you do not have addictive tendencies yourself, you will never truly understand what it’s like for the person who does.  Sure, you can educate yourself about addiction. You can sympathize, and empathize and support and love; but you can never really understand. No more than you can understand what it is to be black when you’re white; or gay when you’re straight, can you actually understand what it means to be an addict when you are not.
My husband is an alcoholic/addict. I am not.  We have been together 13 years.  In that time, we have taken the journey from the depths of his addictions to his eventual long-term recovery.  We have been “in the trenches” together. I’ve helped him off the floor when he was wasted, held his hand in treatment, been through family counseling, ushered our children through his recovery, and have been to more 12-step meetings than most non-addicts I know.  We’ve had addicts detox in our basement. I’ve washed their clothes, cleaned their vomit, confiscated their booze or drugs, consoled, counseled and commiserated with their loved ones.  My point being, if there is any non-addict on the planet who knows what it is to be addicted, it should be me.  It isn’t.
I can drink half a glass of wine and leave the rest. I can socially smoke. I can recreationally smoke pot. I can take opiates for pain and not become dependent. Why can‘t they? Oh, I know the answer. Intellectually, I know the answer.  There is a phenomenon of craving that takes place in the alcoholic/addict when these substances are introduced that does not occur in the non-addicted person.  Simple enough, right?  Yeah, right. But here’s the thing; even though I know that, I’ve never experienced that craving, nor will I ever.  So, after many years of making myself crazy trying to comprehend it, I have come to the understanding that I will never understand.  Which, in and of itself, is life-giving.
It’s in our nature to want to understand someone when we love them.  We want to be on the same level.  We want them to know that we get them. That we, above all others, know them as well as they know themselves. When you’re a non-addict who loves an addicted person, not being able to achieve this state of knowing the other can be maddening.  You can read all the books, attend all the seminars, go to meetings with them, abstain from substances yourself and still you can’t say that you know what it’s like for them.  It’s beyond frustrating.  So, how about you give yourself a break and admit to yourself that you can’t understand…and that’s okay.
Think of it this way.  If the person you love had cancer, would you beat up on yourself for being unable to feel their pain? Would you lay awake at night trying to figure out what it was like to have cancer? Of course you wouldn’t. You would be there to support them emotionally. You would let them know that you love them, no matter what. You would try to get them the best possible treatment you could find. You would help them to battle their disease in any way possible.  You would be grateful when the cancer went into remission and ever watchful and guarded against its possible return.  You would go to any length to be certain your loved one followed up with any on-going treatment to keep them in remission.
It’s no different with the disease of addiction.  Don’t be fooled. Untreated addiction is every bit the terminal disease that cancer can be.  Because addiction is a disease that centers in the mind, we discount it.  We find ourselves making statements like:  “No one chooses to have cancer, my loved one chose to drink or use to excess.”  Bullshit, if you’ll pardon my expression.  No matter how intelligent, how educated, how wealthy, how well-connected they may be, they have no choice.
Your addicted loved one has no more choice about the way they drink or use than the cancer patient has about the cancer cells growing in their body. THAT is the thing that you need to understand.
  Understand that addiction is a disease and treat it as such. That’s next.
You’ve spent all this time trying to understand what it’s like to be an addict. Now that we’ve established that you need to give that up to keep your sanity, take a look at the things you CAN understand.
Understand that your loved one has a disease. Understand that their disease centers in the mind. Understand that they have no choice about the way they drink or use.  Give this disease the same psycho-emotional treatment you would if it were cancer or heart disease. If your loved one had any other life-threatening disease; you would not be ashamed, you would just help them treat it. So do that.
Understand that their disease has nothing to do with you.
You can no more cause your loved one’s addiction than you could cause them to have cancer.  Let that go.  Blaming yourself will do nothing other than make both of you miserable.  The addict carries enough guilt and shame about their addiction to last several lifetimes.  Watching you blame yourself for their struggles only amplifies that guilt and aggravates every aspect of the issues they are trying to overcome.
Understand that their disease is treatable, but not by you.
We’ve already established that you cannot understand what it’s like to be an addict. So what would make you think that you can cure one?  Guess what? You CAN’T. But there are plenty of addiction specialists out there who can. Whether its in-patient treatment in a rehab center or your local AA or NA group, there are people who DO know what it is to be an addict that can help. Help your loved one seek them out with the same discernment you would use in choosing a surgeon.  Most importantly, stop beating yourself up because you can’t fix them!


  1. Hi Marti, this is a really great blog. Love it! You're easy to follow and you make so much sense. Many should read this. How funny, but I've made the same analogy as you between cancer and addictions when talking about addictions. Society, aka the mass consciousness, judges addictions cancer not, and there is one good reason why it is so hard to work on and heal addictions. You inspire, I'll use your blog with family. Keep it rollin' girl! Much love Jan Hopland

  2. This is an absolutely phenomenal post. What amazing insight and compassion you bring to a topic that is so important and ... as I now understand ... misunderstood. You really opened my eyes.

  3. Marti,

    I'm so happy Jan shared this post on FB. You have a beautiful voice when you write, this blog was really moving and filled with such heartfelt empathy for those who do have an addict in their lives. Words of wisdom and insight as you share yourself.

    much love, Patty Sherry

  4. this is beautiful, and so are you!!!