My relationship with Cindy generated emotional swings in me – from moments of joy when Cindy took steps toward healing to heavy disappointment or raging anger when she went back to her drugs.
Several years ago I met a young single mother with an infant son in my neighbourhood. (I’ll call them Cindy and Joey to protect their identities). In the first conversation we had, the woman opened up. She had grown up in a home where both parents were drug addicts. She was abused as a child. At 20, the girl was herself an addict – hard core. She asked me for help. She wanted to break free.
Thus began a roller coaster ride of learning. This was my first experience of knowing and interacting intimately with an addict. In our first few weeks of friendship, I learned that wanting to change and actually taking steps to change are very different things. Initially I spent tremendous energy and time on Cindy. I admit, even to the point of personal exhaustion on my part. I willingly went many extra miles in hopes she would change. I was emotionally invested in her recovery.
A month after I met her, a police officer knocked on my door. He said that a young lady had overdosed and was in the emergency room at the local hospital. I drove down there expecting to be told she was dead. Cindy had survived once again. This was the first of many dramatic situations into which I was drawn.
My relationship with Cindy generated emotional swings in me – from moments of joy when Cindy took steps toward healing to heavy disappointment or raging anger when she went back to her drugs. I soon realized that what I did for her was NOT going to cause her to recover. In fact, at times my “help” was actually enabling to continue her addiction. She would have to hit a point of surrender. She would have to reach the place of total willingness to seek professional help to break free from her addiction.
I began to create more boundaries, to interact with her on healthy terms – when it fits my schedule and when I had energy to share. With firmness and in love, I let her know that I could not be close to her unless she decided to make some radical changes. I expressed that when she was finally committed to change, she could count on me to help facilitate her path toward healing.
Cindy’s drug addiction eventually landed in her in jail. I clearly wasn’t able to and still can’t save her. Her life is her choice.
Because almost all of us know someone struggling with addiction (whether drugs, alcohol, pornography, gambling, food, shopping, work etc.), I felt compelled to share insights that I gained from this experience.
1. You can’t “fix” an addict. Until the person becomes determined to break the addiction they will not stop. Deep within every addict is unbearable pain mingled with self-loathing. What you can do is believe for them that they are a valuable creation of God. You can know that if and when they are ready, they can find the power to transform. “Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul” (Rachel Naomi Remen, Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCSF School of Medicine).
2. Opt-out of enabling. Don’t sacrifice for an addict, allow them to do things for themselves. Don’t bend over backwards to rescue them; allow them to experience the natural consequences of their behaviors even if they face embarrassment or imprisonment. See that addicts continually create financial crisis. Refuse to pour your resources into a bottomless pit. It is essential that addicts bottom out and feel the full force of the destructiveness of their addiction. Don’t desert them. Show love but allow them to face their addiction head on.
3. Beware of manipulation and deception. Pay close attention. Addicts will say one thing but do something else. They will blatantly lie to cover their tracks and get money to feed their addiction. Their tricks may make you feel crazy. You are not insane; their behavior is.
4. Don’t preach. Lectures lead to resistance, conflict and power struggles. They will get you nowhere. Offer tough love and honesty. Be honest. Tell them firmly and clearly what you are seeing and experiencing. Let them know, “You have an addiction. It is ruining your life. Only you can change. You can do so when you are ready.”
5. Make practical suggestions. Encourage them to seek a spiritual counselor or support group. Introduce them to healthy activities and environments that you think might interest them. Then let go. You have done your best. In the last analysis, they will make their own choices.
6. Establish clear boundaries. Realize that becoming involved with an addict can become all consuming. Practice detachment. As author Byron Katie says, “There are three kinds of business. My business, your business and God’s business.” Take care of your own business. Your life must be your priority. As the airlines remind us, “In case of emergency, put on your oxygen mask first BEFORE helping someone else put on theirs.”
7. Find local solutions. If you get to a point of needing to intervene, have a plan in mind. Is there a church, non-profit or other group in their area where you can take your friend or family member for help? If you live in an area where none of these organizations exist, go online and do some research. Unless you are a trained professional with a deep understanding of overcoming addictions, you do not have the expertise to help addicts break their addiction.
Food For Thought
“If you know someone who tries to drown their sorrows, you might tell them sorrows know how to swim.”
Quoted in P.S. I Love You, by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Editor’s note: Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.
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