Editor's note: The following column is part of an occasional series by Melissa Perrell, patient advocacy officer and vice president of patient services at Novant Health. See links to all installments below.
When we love someone who is an addict, one of the most difficult challenges can be learning to let go. As I have discussed in previous articles, the best thing you can do if you love someone who has the disease of addiction is take care of yourself. I've shared some practical ways to do that and have offered advice on how to truly help those you love. This installment will discuss letting go – one of the hardest, but most essential things to learn when you love someone with addiction.
The concept of "letting go" encompasses a lot of different things in terms of relating to someone suffering from addiction. In all instances, we have to let go of the illusion of control – along with our effort to control – and accept that we cannot change another person. This is not easy to do and is at the core of step one of the 12-step recovery program: “We admitted we were powerless over the addict and that our lives had become unmanageable.” As long as we try to hold on and control, our lives will remain crazy and we will not find serenity. It is scary to let go because when we stop trying to control, we also have to accept that things may not turn out the way that we hope. We have to let go of having a certain outcome. “Letting go” for some of us means that we have to step completely aside in order to protect ourselves.
Many folks have asked me: How do you know when to stop? How much treatment should I continue paying for? When is it time to get off the merry-go-round? These are difficult questions, and there are no easy answers. However, once you start focusing on yourself and setting healthy boundaries, I believe the answers to these questions will become clearer. As a rule of thumb, if your loved one's addiction has reached a point of being truly harmful to you, then it is time to let go.
Denial is one of the five stages of grief. Those of us who love addicts have been hurt deeply and have much to grieve. Often, it is more than we can bear. I tend to believe the best of folks, and I try to have a positive, hopeful outlook on life. While these are generally positive qualities, they have also contributed to my own state of denial about the reality of living with an addict, causing me to minimize things, overlook warning signs and continue the status quo. Those suffering from addiction also are in denial — they do not see clearly how their actions are hurting themselves and others.
In addition to denial, it's often hard to know if our loved one is truly in recovery because a symptom of addiction is lying. As someone who loves an addict, we also desperately want to believe that things are getting better or that they are not so bad. I learned the hard way that I need to believe behavior rather than words. It took me a long time to understand the concept of "verbal reality" – that an addict's words are just words and nothing more. I learned the importance of looking at behavior over time to see whether he was truly in recovery or simply continuing to manipulate me.
Recovery from addiction is a process. It does not happen overnight, and there are usually setbacks along the way. Once the addict becomes willing to change, he or she must continue to pursue recovery one day at a time as addiction is a lifelong illness. Addiction is a cunning and baffling disease, and an addict who becomes complacent and does choose recovery along with working his program daily is at risk for relapsing — a heartbreak for everyone.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Many of us who love addicts have developed a high tolerance for insanity, not realizing how abnormal our life has become because we have been doing it for so long. We often do not realize that we are riding a merry-go-round of craziness. In other words, this is the part of step one where we admit that our lives had become unmanageable.
Some of the addicts in our lives will choose recovery. Others will not. Some will experience recovery for a while, decide that staying sober is too much work and go back to their life of addiction. Regardless of what our loved ones decide, as we become healthier, we learn that we are not victims. We learn that we also have choices, and we have the power to decide how to respond.
One of these decisions is whether we stay in relationship with an addict or not. Walking away from someone you love whose continued actions hurt you is one of the hardest things to do in the world. However, sometimes it is the only choice we have to protect our own health and well-being. Part of our recovery includes learning to let go of expectations and outcomes.
Only the addict can decide if and when he or she is ready and willing to change. And only we can decide what we can and cannot tolerate – and act accordingly. For many of us, this will include letting go of destructive relationships in order to save ourselves. The best quote that I have heard in recovery related to this concept is "you don't have to set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm."
Read other stories in the series: