Many of us were taught the dangers of drugs and alcohol in school, and yet we were never told that substance use will happen among the people we will know-- the people we love. We were not readily taught that trauma and pain are often contributors to substance use. We were not educated about the ways that substances alter the physiological reward pathways in the brain, or about the genetic causes behind substance use disorders.
When someone you love changes who they are because of substance use, when a person you used to trust becomes untrustworthy, or when that person’s situation begins to take over your own everyday life, it’s time to see what you, yourself, have the power to change.
But let’s be clear. Little else is more difficult than a situation where you worry about someone you love every day. You might be worried about your finances, your relationships, or if your loved one will be ok.
Change is difficult. It is difficult for people who live with addiction, and it is difficult for people who do not have addiction issues. Change is one of the hardest things we do in life. Especially when it comes to old patterns of enabling, avoiding, or coping in unhealthy ways.
I’ve worked with many people who are in recovery. I haven’t met every person who struggled with addiction, by far-- but I have not yet met anyone who first began drinking or using drugs in order to hurt other people. Not yet. Your loved one probably doesn’t intend to hurt you in this way, but it is still incredibly difficult for you.
I say this with love for the people who struggle with an addiction themselves. No one wants to live under the stigma of addiction. There are wonderful, good people who struggle with substance use out in the world every day. I’ve met people who picked up substances to cope with pain, to fit in, to feel some relief, or to mentally escape situations, not to mention the fact that science now shows us that addiction can be wired into our DNA. These factors make it harder for people to recover, but recovery is possible for them, too.
The addicted people I have worked with often had addictive behaviors, drugs, or alcohol introduced to them by someone they looked up to— perhaps a friend, a colleague, a family member. Sometimes substances were forced on the individual, especially in situations of abuse or control. Like many of you, I even had a loved one who was inadvertently introduced to substances by a trusted physician in times of physical pain. Sometimes, that first use just seemed like the thing to do at the time— it seemed harmless, controllable.
But in order to help a person you love, you must first help yourself heal and empower yourself with information. Wounded people have a hard time helping other wounded people. Healthy people are the best helpers.
But when does substance use become a problem?
There is no giant neon sign that indicates when addiction has become a problem. There is no “here is the line”, although many people try to label a defining line. People often avoid treatment with the statement “Well, it’s not that bad yet.” Or, how about this one: “I’m not the one with the addiction, if my (spouse/friend/partner/family member) would just change, then I will be fine."
The toughest thing to acknowledge is that we only have power over ourselves. You can’t will a loved one into recovery. You can’t stop another person from acting in codependent ways. You certainly can’t watch over another person, day and night, to protect them from themselves. Heck, eventually, you are going to have to sleep, at least!
If you have become painfully aware that substances have made your life difficult, only you can control the changes within yourself. It won’t be easy. You will have to learn new coping skills. But it doesn’t have to be as difficult as you may think.
For one, you are not alone. Believe it or not, there are people who would like to help you. Trust me on this. It’s real. They are out there. (This is why AA and Al-Anon exist!)
You Get to Control the Changes You Make
There are ways to cope with life and with change that you may have never imagined.
Consider the possibility that there are possibilities you never imagined before. Fear can be very useful, but fear often tries to convince us that positive change is too scary or too impossible. Sometimes our fears are incorrect.
Change is scary, but your life is worth it. Change doesn’t have to be huge; you can simply change the way you think about a situation. If you don’t feel ready for change just yet, consider just gently pondering the possibility of a better life. Pondering the possibility can be your secret— you don’t have to tell anyone that you might sometimes hope for change. You don’t have to change just yet. You get to control your thoughts about change. Yes, you. You are the owner of the change you seek, in so many ways.
Maybe life has only shown you darkness for a while. But just as that darkness is possible... perhaps… light and hope are also possible. It is not scientifically unreasonable to consider that outcomes can change.
You Don’t Have to Know Everything
Imagine driving cross-country— from Nashville to California. You won’t be able see the road ahead of you all the way to your destination. You can’t stand on Second Ave. and Broadway and see all the way past Memphis, the desert, a million road stops and signs. You can only see a few feet ahead of you on any journey.
You don’t have to completely achieve desired results instantaneously, but you can consider beginning the journey. You can dedicate yourself to the imagined destination.
The Radical Idea of Loving Yourself
And get this— it may be a radical idea, but perhaps you can be kind to yourself in this journey, on top of that. Hell, it’s worth a try, isn’t it? When’s the last time you tried being fully kind, forgiving, and honest with yourself?
If you can’t remember the last time, then perhaps you’ve been doing things all wrong. Maybe it’s time to actually work WITH yourself and not AGAINST yourself a little.
Being kind to yourself doesn’t mean you have to neglect your loved ones. There is enough to go around, if you trust the process.
Where do you want to go?
Maybe you want to better cope with a loved one in your life. Perhaps, you want to seek that big change of recovery in your own life.
Whatever change you want in your life, consider talking with an experienced professional. It doesn’t have to be me. Not every therapist is the best fit for every person. Try talking to different counselors or coaches. Try a meeting. See what feels comfortable.
Even Michael Phelps didn’t just go to the Olympics without his coach. We all need someone in our corner, someone not involved in our private life or our family, someone to observe and help us on the path. Wouldn’t it be something to have someone like that working for you?