Sunday, November 17, 2013
Living with Addiction
I'm not an addict, but I'm surrounded by it and some days feel overwhelmed by my lack of understanding and inability to control it in those I love.
I give credit to Al-Anon, where I spent a lot of tearful nights a dozen or so years ago, for allowing me to come to any kind of terms with it. It was there I learned a lot of lessons that still require reminders, all these years later, even though they have been drummed into my head by life.
Although I may not completely grasp how someone can do something that so plainly wrecks their lives, at least to my "sober" way of thinking, I understand it is not as simple as choosing to stop and I realize that they do not see the behavior with the same objectivity as the people around them. The compulsion whispers to them in a special, seductive voice that only they can hear. If I began to lose that sense of understanding, all I have to do is get into a conversation with someone who is high and have them tell me all the wonderful things about what they are doing. Seriously, I could share the text messages if I needed to do so.
Addiction is not a choice. It's some quirk in genetic programming that can cripple generation after generation, or land on one sibling while leaving another free. It isn't about a lack of self control, or about loving the substance more than you. It is about seeing the world through a different perspective in which that substance plays an all important role as a friend and comforter and is not the barrier to a complete life that the people around them see.
It can be food, video games, gambling, the internet, pornography, medications, alcohol or illegal narcotics. It can also be tobacco and caffeine, although people generally don't let those addictions interfere with life, although tobacco, at least, bears some of the negative effects of other addictions. Whatever it is, it controls the life of the person addicted, keeping them away from loved ones, affecting their ability to work, causing mental and physical ailments or injuries, always hurting those around them. It can cause people to lie, cheat, steal and kill, sometimes unintentionally.
For the people around an addict, it can cause a special kind of insanity. There's the emotional roller coaster of good days/bad days. Sometimes an addict can go days or even weeks without succumbing to their addiction. It's so easy to think, "They're better. They're doing so good." It can be a game of control -- pouring out the alcohol, or trying to drink a bigger portion (as if they would not get more) or flushing the drugs, disconnecting the internet. You feel like you should be able to fix the situation, more so because the addict will probably tell you it's your fault. It's a vicious hamster maze of a life.
Although I still deal with addiction in multiple family members, in various stages, with varying degrees of severity and to varying substances, I encountered the harsh realities of life with an addict with my second ex-husband. Suffering from abuse of all types from people around him as a child, he had turned to alcohol and narcotics to escape himself. I didn't marry him thinking I could fix him - I was unaware of many things that he kept hidden until our marriage was unraveling, and I thought he could put aside alcohol as easily as I did. I did not realize it was a way of life for him, or that he frequently needed more.
During our marriage I explored all the options of that hamster maze from one dead end to another. I paid for a stay in rehab, two totaled cars, and multiple trips to the courthouse. I suffered domestic violence, more afraid of him when I made him leave than I was when I could monitor his level of use. During one of his stabs at sobriety, I went along to the AA meeting and discovered Al-Anon next door. I discovered a certain level of insanity among many of the long-term members of that group as well who lived with practicing alcoholics. Women who lived with men who set fire to their homes, who could never be counted on for anything. I discovered I didn't want to follow that path and was finally able to throw in the towel.
He moved away and remarried, but I doubt he was ever successful at changing because he probably never really admitted the depths of his pain or faced his addiction. Recovery for an addict means admitting they aren't in control, when often they think their use is the one thing they do control. It means admitting weakness and asking for help, from professionals, from a "higher power," from other former addicts. It means giving up an old "friend" that would always make things "better," changing where you go and what you do, adopting a whole different way of life. I cannot imagine how tough that would be. He killed himself several years ago, something he had regularly threatened to do -- painful evidence that he had not been able to change.
Now those lessons of Al-Anon still come in handy and after living with them so many years, they are a little easier to exercise. I accept the limitations on my relationships that are brought on by addiction. I try not to provoke pointless arguments in which I know what what I'm saying will be transformed into condemnation, although sometimes just an expression of concern and love can be seen that way. I try not to provide support that enables. I try to avoid people who are using because my sanity is more precious than being in their presence. I still love and care, but I don't beat myself up over not being able to express those feelings the way I would like. While I don't cut them out of my life, I do focus on the positive people around me instead.
I know in the weeks ahead that shell of composure may well be tested by the sometimes forced gaiety of holiday gatherings where not everyone shows up sober. Often it creates too much drama to ask them to leave, or I'm not the hostess and instead may need to make my excuses. I also know I'm far from alone in looking at the holidays with a degree of trepidation for that reason. Far too many of us deal with addiction in the people we love and admitting we are helpless in the face of that addiction doesn't make it easier to tolerate. There are times when we have to just walk away and times when we may have to show someone the door. We don't have to sacrifice our happiness for theirs.
If you're in that same boat, I hope you can do what I hope to do and build your holiday around the other people in your life. I'll focus on family members who don't bring along their addiction like a knife they may slip into your heart when you're least suspecting it. When they are included in the gathering, I won't leave myself open for a cutting word or ugly display.
And if you're dealing with addiction, from either side of the coin, get help. Don't suffer in prideful silence thinking your problems are so unique, your addiction so terrible -- underneath the pain and the layers of lies, there's a common thread to be unraveled. Talking with other people who are unraveling that thread and walking the same path can help. It can bring sanity and it can you help find freedom from addiction -- whether you are the addict or the person who loves one.