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Living as Part of a Family with Addiction: Courage, Hope and Love

Since it warmed up here in Minnesota, I took advantage of the balmy 9 degree weather by taking a walk outside around the lake. Though chilly, it gave me a chance to reflect back on a day that warmed my heart.

This second day spent in the Family program at the Hazelden Addictions Treatment Center in Minnesota provided me with a glimpse of the heartwarming acts of courage displayed each moment by the families of addicts. As a participant in Hazelden’s Spiritual Care Provider training, courtesy of a grant from the Reform Rabbinical organization CCAR, I was honored to witness the gutsy honesty with which spouses, parents and children of addicts processed the past and looked into the future as relatives of people in recovery. [All the names, situations and stories are composites. In order to protect the confidentiality of all involved, I generalize from my experiences and those of my colleagues.]

A Story
A woman seeks to leave a room. There are only two doors – door number one and door number two. She opens door number one, takes a step out where a person holding a stick whacks her in the head. (Pardon the violent image.) She stumbles back into the room. A little while later, she decides to try again. She opens door number one, takes a step out where a person holding a stick whacks her in the head. She stumbles back in the room. Some hours later, the same thing happens. Opening door number one, getting whacked in the head, and stumbling back inside. This goes on and on. At some point, she opens door one, peers outside, and notices that the person with the stick is no longer standing outside. What does she do? So she begins to look around to find the missing man.

This then is the dilemma of an addict’s family. After living the pain-filled life of one who loves an addict (addicted to drugs, booze, cocaine, pills, gambling, sex or…), is there a point that you stop looking after him or her? Is there a point that you just go through a different doorway and get on with your life? And what is going on inside of you that keeps steering you back toward door number one when you know from experience that you will be whacked in the head?

Here at Hazelden, we are learning that after years of focusing on the needs or dysfunction of the addict, each family member begins to transition into focusing back on him/herself. That transition is incredibly difficult.

We learned that when the loved one descends into the dark pit of addiction, the family member might want to begin a process called “detaching with love.” Detaching with love is not about anger or resentment, fear, anxiety, judgment or numbness. Rather, detaching with love is about taking responsibility for oneself and letting go of responsibility for the actions of the addict.

I learned that in homes of addicts, family members often try very hard to keep the addict from using. Hiding bottles or censoring words or watching what you do, all to ensure that you do not set her off on a drinking or drugging binge. Detaching with love helps you transform your own mindset. No longer must you walk on eggshells. Now, when you say something without intention of hurting anyone that makes her angry, that’s no longer your problem. (It is the addict’s problem.) Detaching with love is about setting boundaries of acceptable behavior.

It also requires one face difficult questions:

  • Will our marriage survive?
  • Should it?
  • Can I trust her?
  • Am I responsible for the past, or for the future?
  • If I still love him, how can I not try to save him?
  • But if I cannot save him, what am I to do?

I spent today with tears in my eyes, my heart filling with awe as regular people wrestled with intense issues. No surefire solutions guaranteed; none were really offered. Just a group of normal people, walking a painful path, struggling with their feelings and sharing insights with each other. No mystical heroes here, just regular Joes and Janes trying to figure out today and hoping to make it to tomorrow. No perfection here, just processing life.

They inspired me with their courage. I will keep them all in my prayers.

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