In recent years, addiction has been pushed out of the shadows and into the public eye, creating awareness and empathy for this often misunderstood disease. Yet, while there’s increasing compassion for addicts, there’s still little understanding about the impact of addiction on those who love (and care for) them.
We hear stories of those who are driven to lie, cheat, and steal for a fix; those who secretly gamble away their bank balances; those who hoard alcohol in hidden cupboards, and feel ashamed by how often they reach for a sip. We may hear less from those who are lied to, cheated or stolen from; those unaware their savings are steadily fed into a slot machine; those pouring bottles of alcohol down drains after they unexpectedly stumble upon them. Frustrated onlookers may criticize family members and friends for not cutting an addict off, confuse loyalty for weakness, forgiveness for indulgence, or blame friends and family for the behavior of an addict. Loved ones of addicts are often pretty tough on themselves, too.
Much advice for family and friends is centered specifically around the addict—how to avoid enabling, what to look for in a rehab clinic, how to stage an intervention. While all valuable, this can contribute to a feeling that a loved one’s suffering isn’t as worthy of attention. Caring for an addict can be isolating and all-consuming, and family and friends may only seek support when driven to the brink. While support groups and therapy are invaluable resources, family and friends of addicts can take steps earlier, during everyday living, to ease the burden of caring for an addict.
When involved with an addict, we can easily lose control of our thoughts. Our minds may whir constantly, worrying about where they might be, what they might be up to (and why), how we might help, what we (and they) might do differently, in circles and on repeat. In the midst of the anxiety, anger, or heartbreak that loving an addict can bring, meditation may not seem like an obvious addition to the mix. But meditation has been used to cope with conditions ranging from chronic pain to cancer to addiction itself, and can bring clarity around darker thoughts and deeper fears—an easy path to take when worrying about a struggling loved one. The practice of meditation is fundamentally simple but can be uncomfortable to start. It’s very normal to experience hurdles when first learning to focus differently, and on the breath. But repeated, gentle efforts to let go of thoughts and to disconnect—however briefly—from powerful emotions can do wonders for our mental health, and the ability to cope.
With enough practice, meditation can lead to a stronger relationship with our thoughts and sense of self-awareness. Undeserved self-blame can be an easy trap to fall into when loving an addict and paramount to avoid whenever possible. At the same time, it’s equally important to be honest with oneself about the motivation behind maintaining a relationship with an addict. Many times, it involves feelings of love and obligation. Other times, it may be a tendency toward codependency. Difficult to distinguish from sincere care, codependency is a psychological reliance on supporting another person, and an entanglement in relationships that are heavily skewed towards one person’s needs. Supporting a sick family member or friend is, by nature, intrinsically focused on the other person, examining our own motivations or patterns in other relationships may offer valuable insight into how many of our actions can be fueled by selflessness or inadvertent self-destruction. Codependency isn’t a failing or a reason to feel shame. Instead, it offers room to explore the dynamics of a relationship with potential for change.
Related: Can meditation help with addiction?
Acceptance is one of the toughest and most important skills when dealing with addiction. In one of the handbooks on dealing with addiction, “In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts”, Dr. Gabor Maté advises, “Families, friends, and partners of addicts sometimes have only one reasonable decision in front of them: either choose to be with the addict as she is or to choose not to be with her.” “Unconditional acceptance of another person doesn't mean staying with them under all circumstances, no matter what the cost to oneself,” he adds. “Acceptance … may mean simply acknowledging that the other is the way he or she is, not judging them and not corroding one's own soul with resentment that they are not different.” Acceptance is a skill, taught by clinical professionals because of its efficacy and its difficulty—it involves accepting life as it is, not as we might prefer. It means accepting pain to mitigate suffering, though that may seem counterintuitive. But, as anyone who has grappled with addiction knows full well, denying the reality of the disease may only exacerbate its impact. Addiction is a complicated condition and lives within a family of other hard truths. While we cannot cure addiction, we may be able to change our relationship with it.
Caring for an addict can be isolating and all-consuming.