"Almost everything that is helpful when a loved one is caught in an addiction is wildly counter-intuitive".
Helpers often draw a sense of strength, purpose and capability from their helping role, which can make it challenging to strike the right balance between support and loving detachment. One of the things I hear most frequently is “I will do anything to help my loved one”, but it can feel near-impossible for helpers if the ‘anything’ that is actually required is to step back a little, do less and draw more limits. It runs extremely counter to what feels natural to do, and yet very often, less is more because less often allows us to stay more viably connected to the addicted person, and connection is a lifeline. Over-involvement has its own emotional and physiological indicators and if we listen to these messengers, we can develop a good barometer for what level of involvement is sustainable and helpful, and what level is counter-productive.
1) High Anxiety
Living alongside a loved one’s addiction can feel like life inside a perpetual emergency, waiting anxiously for the phone call or the knock on the door that all family members of alcoholics/addicts dread, or feeling constantly on edge, wondering what state the person might be in at any given time and what they might do next. It is not uncommon for helpers to feel nauseous and sick in the guts, their nervous systems in overload as they anticipate or meet crises. This hyper-vigilance cannot be managed by trying to get the addicted person clean and sober, though this approach is instinctual. It must be managed by learning how to self-regulate, calm our anxiety and settle our nervous system.
2) Feeling Numb
Running on anxiety and doing too much can mean we have little opportunity to settle into our bodies and feel our feelings. This can be an unconscious payoff of over-functioning. The addicted person numbs via their drug use and the helper numbs through their over-functioning, but the cost of managing our feelings this way is high, because if we can’t feel our feelings, we can’t determine our needs. Numbing can also be part of our freeze response, the last vestige of physiological safety enacted by the nervous system when we encounter a threat to our life or wellbeing, or to that of someone we love. Unfreezing requires the creation of safety, which is why boundaries are critical.
When we do not observe our own limits, do more than we can comfortably do, or give more than we can comfortably give, anger emerges to let us know where our limits are. When we repeatedly ignore our limits and silence the anger that is there to protect us, the cumulative effect over time is rage. Whether it is the silent, internal, gritted teeth variety or the explosive rage that sprays out volcanically at others, it is worth listening to what our rage can steer us in the right direction in understanding where limits need to be drawn.
When we draw adequate limits, resentment doesn’t feature strongly, but over-involvement comes with a counter-balancing under-involvement in our own life that breeds resentment. Important projects remain incomplete, life goals are let go of, needs go unattended to, experiences that bring us joy are put on hold, all while we continue to pour time, energy and money into our loved one’s problem. The resentment generated can get in the way of a warm, open-hearted connection with the addicted person, and above all, this connection needs to be preserved. The antidote to resentment is to live our own life fully, despite this feeling counter-intuitive to do whilst our loved one is struggling.
5) Poor Self-care
When we direct all our care into our loved one, we have little left for ourselves. We stop exercising, resting, eating well, getting enough sleep and having fun. This can be driven by a type of loyalty whereby we feel guilty looking after ourselves and doing things that feel good while our loved one is suffering, but the denial of these things does not reduce the addicted person’s suffering. If anything, addicts are extremely prone to over-responsibility for others, and often blame themselves for the poor health of those who sacrifice so much in their efforts to look after them. When we take good care of ourselves it lightens the burden of guilt that the addicted person carries and provides a powerful example of what we would like them to do for themselves.
6) Control and Rigidity
When our efforts to help are anxiety-driven, we may become inflexible in our approach, certain that a particular way of dealing with the problem is the only way. We may enact threats or become doggedly attached to certain outcomes that would be settling for us, and certain pathways for achieving those outcomes that don’t resonate with the addicted person. Our ‘help’ becomes less like help and more like taking over and managing their life, which gets in the way of our loved one feeling like they are in control of their own life and capable of solving their own problems. Learning how to hold space for the person as they figure out their own problems is hugely helpful.
It is physically and emotionally exhausting to take more responsibility for another person’s life and wellbeing than they do. Helpers burn themselves out trying to help their addicted loved one get well, whilst the person with the addiction remains unmotivated or does little to help themselves. Making a project out of ‘fixing’ our loved one and forgetting about ourselves leaves us depleted and under-resourced to be able to engage with the problem helpfully. Focusing our change effort on ourselves is far more productive and a much more productive use of resources.
Almost everything that is helpful when a loved one is caught in an addiction is wildly counter-intuitive. Focusing on our own emotional and physiological functioning and mindfully watching for indicators of over-involvement can provide opportunities to provide a different quality of help. In this way, we can begin to offer the help that really helps.