It’s frustrating to be an addict’s partner or close relative, and it’s okay to think, feel, and sometimes even say that. But it’s also important to put things in perspective, consider your partner’s circumstances, and understand both what it means to be an addict, and how demanding recovery can be.
Not all relationships survive an addiction. Whether you’re a parent with a child, an adult with an addicted relative, a best friend, or a life partner, an addiction can and often will do damage to any and all of these relationships. Relationships are built on trust, and most people with an addiction will do one or more things to erode and undermine said trust while addicted. This doesn’t magically change once your loved one is sober – it can take weeks, months, or even years for a person to feel confident in their sobriety and the life they’ve made for themselves after addiction. It can take just as long to completely regain someone’s trust. But if you are both willing to take the tough steps to get there, it will be worth it in the end.
Recovery Is Hard
No one can completely empathize with the struggle of recovery without going through something similar, but you can still understand what it might mean. Imagine relying on something to function like a basic human being, until it begins to eat away at you and bring your life to its knees. Then, you must learn not only to live without it, but to live successfully without it – a task you might have struggled with before that thing came into your life to begin with.
Couple that with emotional instability, new environments, common feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing, and a strong craving for another fix, almost like thirst or hunger. Recovery, especially early on, is grueling and testing. Drug-free environments like sober living homes and rehab facilities can help make the process of going sober safer and more effective, by circumventing the relapses that are often common in the first few weeks of sobriety. Even so, over half of all people who go through a recovery program relapse within the first 12 months after the program has ended.
Recovery is hard because addiction is pervasive and takes time to overcome. More than just a matter of the mind, it can accurately be described as a brain disease. Physical dependence to a drug does not remove a person’s ability to choose not to take the drug, but it heavily influences the odds against them.
We are simply wired to listen to our brain – our instincts are integral to keeping us alive, and certain things, like a craving for food, the will to procreate, or the allure of someone attractive, or instant and instinctual. Drugs manipulate a lot of the brain’s pathways related to things we find naturally rewarding, and for a long time after someone stops using, those same pathways continue to be preoccupied with the thought of another fix. Understanding that recovery is hard is an important first step to supporting your loved one.
Recovery Takes A While
The first step in most recovery programs is to get someone off the drugs and help them go through the immediate events that follow. Heavy drug use can lead to withdrawal symptoms, which are a collection of physical and mental symptoms caused by the abrupt end of drug use. Some symptoms are caused by a host of underlying problems previously numbed by the drug use. Others are caused by the brain effectively ‘recalibrating’.
After the withdrawal symptoms end, drug addicts go through recovery at their own pace. A person’s success in recovery doesn’t depend so much on their willingness to stay sober as it does on their ability to adapt. Some people transition into sober living very quickly – others take longer. There is no good way to tell how long it might take for sobriety to ‘sink in’, but some people consider a full year spent completely sober a good goal.
Rather than think of a set time, consider more abstract criteria. Recovery is successful when an addict feels they no longer need to fear a relapse, and when they’ve established a lifestyle they are content with, with a variety of ways to deal with stress in the event that they ever feel the need to use again.
Because this process can take a while, it’s important to be aware of the potential bumps and challenges along the way. It’s not a steady path forward – there will be struggles and unexpected difficulties. Working together to overcome them won’t be easy, but it’s the only way for a relationship to survive an addiction. It’s okay to feel frustrated, but don’t consider your loved one a failure for relapsing when things get tough. Help them find the courage to try again, and the confidence to believe in their chances at a lasting sober life, despite prior setbacks.
Addicts Need Compassion
Tough love will not work. While it might not seem that way, addiction is often coupled with feelings of guilt and shame rather than any sense of smugness. Even if they try to hide it, a lot of addicts are deeply depressed and fear that they’ll never improve. Negative reinforcement – or ‘tough love’ – is more likely to make things worse, rather than help them reach the mindset they need to truly make progress.
Compassion is an important component in helping an addict improve on their condition. Addiction is not a moral shortcoming, or a reason to belittle someone – it’s a condition that needs treatment. And as your loved one’s partner, relative, or friend, it’s important that you provide support for that treatment. To an extent.
Draw the Line
There will be moments of frustration, irritation, and even genuine anger. There will be sadness. And it will not be easy. But understand where to draw the line. Supporting an addict in their recovery also means avoiding anything that might enable them and being strict about behavior that counts as emotional and/or physical abuse.
If an addict continuously fails to stay sober and is almost immediately back on their old habit after every treatment, it’s time to pull out. Consider not ending the relationship, but instead putting more responsibility on the addict’s shoulders. It’s on them to decide how to live now, and it cannot be on you to continue to look after them. After a certain point, caring for an addict begins to take its toll to such an extent that it damages your own mental health.
If you feel you are no longer capable to help, make it clear that you’ve had enough. Draw a line, set your boundaries, and stick to them – for your own good, and for the good of your loved one.