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.
In my last article, I stressed the importance of taking care of yourself. Over the years, I have had hundreds of conversations with people who love addicts. Like me, many of them had spent years taking care of others and did not really understand what it means to “take care of yourself.” In addiction to basic wellness – eating healthy foods and exercising – here is some practical guidance for self-care. Most of these things need to be done regularly, some of them daily, to recover from the impact of living with an addict.
Living with an addict is too much for most of us to do alone without going crazy. And those of us in recovery, regardless of whether we consider ourselves religious or believe in a particular God, have found prayer to be vital. My faith is very important to me, but I often found it hard to pray when I was in crisis. For me, simple prayers like “Jesus, help me” and repeating the serenity prayer got me through my hardest days:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (the past; the addict; anything other than myself);
The courage to change the things I can (my own behavior and responses to others) and the wisdom to know the difference.
Read recovery-related literature
There are lots of great books out there, but I have found the daily readings in The Language of Letting Go and More Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie (a recovering drug addict who is most famous for writing Codependent No More ) to be most helpful. They are short, very impactful and available in an app for smartphones. In addition to numerous books on recovery-related issues, Al-Anon and Alateen also have wonderful daily readers, Courage to Change, One Day at a Time and Alateen … a Day at a Time . These daily readers were invaluable to me in the early days of my recovery and still are.
Develop a healthy support system
It is really important to develop a network of others in recovery who can listen and support you in ways that are truly helpful. Addiction is a different animal, and following advice from well-meaning friends who don’t understand addiction is likely going to make things worse rather than better. What looks like love or help in a healthy relationship may be enabling an addict to stay in his or her addiction. Many of the things that you will need to do — or need to stop doing — to stay healthy and to truly help the one you love, will be extremely hard to do. The experience, strength and hope that you will receive from others who have walked — and continue to walk — this broken road will be invaluable. Daily phone calls, text messages or e-mails can provide a much-needed lifeline. Friends and family members who have not experienced addiction can provide support in other ways, such as helping with meals, providing child care so that you can attend meetings or doing something fun with you.
Attend 12-step meetings
Commit to visiting and regularly attending a 12-step meeting. It takes a lot of courage to walk into your first meeting. While all meetings share a similar format and are based on the same 12-step principles derived from Alcoholics Anonymous, each one has its own personality and it may take visiting several before you find one that is the right fit for you. When I first showed up at a 12-step meeting, I was broken and desperate for someone to tell me how to “fix” the addiction. Initially, I cried at every meeting. Over time, I learned that although I couldn’t fix the addiction, I could have serenity.
Perhaps the best thing about these meetings is the community I found. Because the symptoms of addiction are so shameful and often kept secret from our closest friends and family, it was very comforting and healing to be able to talk freely amongst others who had experienced similar or even worse circumstances than me without the fear of being judged. Unlike other groups, those attending 12-step meetings do not give advice as each situation is unique. Rather, we share our own experience, strength and hope with one another. These meetings are free and occur on numerous days and times to fit almost any schedule. There also are phone meetings. Here is a list of organizations specific to various addictions, along with a link to help you learn more and locate meetings near you:
- Al-Anon provides strength and hope for families of problem drinkers.
- Alateen helps teenagers deal with a parent’s alcoholism.
- Nar-Anon is for families and friends of drug addicts.
- Gam-Anon is for families and friends of problem gamblers.
- S-Anon helps those who have been affected by someone else’s sexual behavior.
Get additional help as needed
Many of us have experienced traumatic events and suffered great losses as a result of loving an addict. Whether this is the death or incarceration of someone we love, divorce or other estrangement, the pain is real and can feel unbearable. Depending on your particular circumstances, you also may find it helpful to have individual and/or group counseling with a therapist who understands addiction and who can help you process your grief, while also working on any co-dependent behaviors. Counselors who specialize in trauma are particularly helpful for those who are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to ways you have been wounded by your loved one’s addiction.
Do something fun
Many of us have spent so much of our time and energy over-functioning for an addict or otherwise reacting to the chaos that comes with addiction. As a result, lots of us gradually stopped doing the things that we enjoy doing just for fun. These things can be big, like traveling somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, or small, like listening to music, watching a movie, dancing, hiking or swinging on the swings at a nearby park. Whatever makes you happy, find some way to re-incorporate that into your life. Our Novant Health Reads book from 2016, The Happiness Advantage , is full of great ideas for how to infuse happiness into your life.
If you have been living with active addiction for a long time, it may take awhile for you to develop new ways of thinking and behaving. Be gentle with yourself and aim for “progress not perfection.” Like an airline passenger who is instructed to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others, those of us dealing with addiction have to learn to take care of ourselves first as well. We are worth it!