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With love,

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dirty Words

Understand that the “rest of the world” doesn’t understand
After years of working in recovery circles, the terms “alcoholic” and “addict” are no longer dirty words to me.  They’re simply terms that describe variations on a disease.  But I’m fully cognizant of the fact that those words, when used with the general public, evoke the sort of recoil that “leper” or “sex offender” do.   So, if you’ve decided to stick around you’re going to have to move past considering the opinion of the masses. This is especially true when “the masses” include your own extended family and friends.
I have a close friend whose partner is an active alcoholic.  We shared an email exchange in which he apologized to me for his partner’s drunken behavior at a party. I responded with, “Buddy, there is no need to apologize.  Believe me, I get it.  No one understands what it’s like to love a person with alcoholic tendencies more than I do.”  Now, mind you, the response I was expecting was something along the lines of, “Thanks. It’s nice to know that someone really understands.”  Instead, what I received was, “To be clear, Kelly is NOT alcoholic.  She simply doesn’t know when to stop drinking once she starts, and I have to babysit her.” Oh, okay dude, whatever. I had used the dreaded “A” word and he was not going to sit still for that, regardless of the support being offered.  He wasn’t going to have his lady branded with the “Scarlet Letter” of our time. These are people who are very dear to me, people I would very much like to help guide toward a solution to their misery.  But, they can’t hear me. The “words” get in the way.
Because addiction is most often treated as some sort of personality shortcoming by the mainstream media and in the court of public opinion, those outside the world of recovery seldom grasp the true nature of the disease.  For your own sanity, you have to get to the place where you’re okay with that.   This can be a tough one for us. As we become more educated about addiction and treatment, it becomes blatantly obvious that the largest hurdle in treating the disease is the misconception that it is not one.  We want to scream the truth from the mountain-top and make the rest of the world understand.  The thing is; the rest of the world won’t hear us. They are too immersed in their own fear.
The reason these words create such recoil is completely fear-based.  When you recognize that, it becomes much easier to feel compassion rather than contempt for this sort of response.  They’re afraid.
The general public is afraid of what they do not understand. They are also afraid of not knowing how to behave when the topic comes up.  Comedian Jim Gaffigan sums the reaction up succinctly.  He says,
“When you don't drink, people always need to know why. They're like, 'You don't drink? Why?' This never happens with anything else. 'You don't use mayonnaise? Why? Are you addicted to mayonnaise? Is it OK if I use mayonnaise? I could go outside.’”
Jim illustrates the general public’s reaction perfectly.  They are afraid of their own embarrassment at not knowing what to do or how to act.
The addicted person is afraid of the label not only because of the social stigma, but because it makes the problem “real”.  Before the label comes into play they can continue to use and believe they are fooling everyone.  Once the “words” are used the game changes-for everyone. 
The loved ones are afraid for a multitude of reasons.  Most are afraid that, in some form or another, they are to blame; and with THAT we can certainly identify—because we’ve been there.  Remember that paralyzing fear that you had been contributing to your person’s problem?  Remember the anger at yourself and stupidity that you felt when you realized that you hadn’t seen the problem for what it actually was? Remember knowing within yourself that your person probably had a problem and being terrified that someone would point it out? Remember having to analyze your own behavior and question whether you, yourself had a problem? Remember the fear that if you used the “words” with your person that they would abandon your relationship?  Of course you do.  We all do.
So, when these situations arise where you find yourself on the receiving end of the “dirty word” recoil; remember the fear that you had. Your knee-jerk anger will melt into understanding, and the need to convince the “rest of world” for that moment will leave you.  You might even find that remembering where you used to be will remind you of how far you have come. And, at the risk of being horribly cliché, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Loving an Addict Without Losing Yourself - Part 2

Understand that they don’t understand.
There are two phrases that no longer have any meaning for the family of an alcoholic/addict who is actively using.  They are, “I’m sorry” and “I love you”.
We’ve heard it all before. They’re always sorry and they always love us when they are feeling ashamed of their behavior.  Not so much when they’re in the height of their disease.  Those phrases become as meaningless to us as “Have a nice day” is from the grocery clerk. But, here’s the thing; they don’t know that.  How would they, really?  When they were immersed in their addiction, they didn’t care and we certainly didn’t tell them.  Now that they’re in treatment and/or recovery they really mean those words. But the words are still very empty to us, particularly in the early stages of healing. 
Most often we don’t share the damage that has been done to us because we’re so focused on helping our addict recover.  We’re also afraid, in the beginning especially, that we will say something that will send them spiraling back out of control and into their addiction.  We don’t say that we’re afraid because we don’t want the healing addict to think they are hurting us.  For so long, our focus has been on the addict that we tend to take our own feelings out of the equation.  For a while, we had to; in order to survive the addiction ordeal.  The thing you have to remember is, just like the addiction involved you, the healing involves you also.  It is not only okay for you to share how you are feeling, it’s vital.
In most cases, the addict was so under the haze of their drug of choice that they have no idea of the havoc they were wreaking in the lives of their loved ones.  Imagine coming out of that haze and knowing you’ve done some things that hurt the ones you love, but not knowing what those things are.  You would want someone to tell you so that you could begin to make things right.  So tell them; share who you have become while they were using. 
I was having coffee one morning with a recovering alcoholic friend who was recuperating from surgery in our home. His wife was unwilling to let him return to theirs.  He had required the surgery as the result of a five week alcohol binge that had nearly ended his life. He was lamenting to me, “I don’t understand why Carol is being so stubborn.  I’ve told her how sorry I am over and over again.  She seems to want to punish me.” I said to him, “Dan, ‘I’m sorry’ has no meaning for Carol.”  He just stared at me.  I asked him, “How many times have you said that to Carol over the years?  Carol’s really tired of hearing ‘I’m sorry’ and having nothing change.  Carol has absolutely no reason to believe that this time will be any different than any of the others.  Your perspective may have changed, but hers hasn’t.”  There was more staring, and then he said to me with a look of complete disbelief, “That never occurred to me.” We sipped our coffee in silence for a while.  Then he said quietly, “Thanks for telling me that.”  My husband told me later that Dan had called his wife to tell her that he had never understood how much damage he was doing to her and that he thought he was only harming himself.  You see, he didn’t understand, she didn’t tell him. So they were living in that emotional limbo with which we are all so familiar.
It wasn’t until I had that conversation with Dan that I really came to comprehend how important it is for us as family of recovering addicts to consciously separate the person we love from the person in their disease.  Dan truly had no idea how used up his wife was feeling. I truly had no idea that Dan wouldn’t know that. The disease does that to us, to all of us.
When our addicts are immersed in their addictions they say and do things that they would most likely never do if they weren’t using.  The thing is, for the family, even though we may know that intellectually; it doesn’t make those things hurt any less.  My husband has been sober for six years. There all still times that I find myself filtering the things I say to him.  That filter comes from the ingrained fear that he will react the way he did when he was using; which was often very unpleasant for everyone.  He won’t react now in the way that he used to.  I know that in my head.  But my conditioned behavior from the years of living in the disease supersedes my intellect.  By taking the time to see my husband as that man he is now, which is really all that matters; I’m able to release that fear a little bit more each time it comes up.  And so, the healing continues.
Take a moment to consciously see the person you love. Give yourself that gift. If you can focus on the love between you and the aspects of the person that you adore, even for a few moments, the wounds heal.  The more often you can get to this place of seeing the person outside the disease and through the love you have for them, the faster the healing happens. Perhaps even more importantly, the more you focus on the love, the quicker you will find that place of peace inside yourself that we are all seeking.