“Addiction is a family disease. One person may use, but the whole family suffers.”
— Common saying among addiction recovery circles
Chapter 8 of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book turns its focus away from the effects of alcoholism on the alcoholic, examining instead the effects of alcoholism on those who care about the alcoholic. Although this chapter is entitled “To Wives,” its contents also apply to husbands, parents, children, siblings and friends.
Much of the chapter offers suggestions for convincing a loved one to seek treatment for their alcoholism or addiction. However, one paragraph hints at the possibility that you might not succeed. It reads:
“Be determined that your husband’s drinking is not going to spoil your relations with your children or your friends. They need your companionship and your help. It is possible to have a full and useful life, though your husband continues to drink. We know women who are unafraid, even happy under these conditions. Do not set your heart on reforming your husband. You may be unable to do so, no matter how hard you try.”
The idea here is not that help is impossible—just that you might not get to choose when a loved one seeks it. In short, it means you’ll have to accept that you’re as powerless over their addiction as they are.
Tara's John Robertson on Letting Go Completely
Living with a loved one who has a substance addiction can be devastating. Their addiction can turn our lives upside down and cause us immense suffering. We may despise them sometimes and pity them others. We may do everything we can to help them, only to be frustrated again and again by their continued substance use.
According to Tara’s John Robertson, friends and family members should try to focus on their own mental well-being instead of endlessly worrying and fighting with their addicted love one. “The best thing you can do for your loved one that’s chemically dependent is take care of yourself and set boundaries,” he says.
A big part of this is letting go of responsibility for your loved one’s addiction. Friends and family often hold onto the belief that they can control a person’s substance use, and this illusion must be broken in order for them to begin healing.
John explains how he helps people start the process of recovering from their loved one’s addiction:
“I’ll bring family members to tears when they come through the doors at Tara. I’ll look at them and say, ‘It’s not your fault.’ And they’ll just start crying, because they think it is. They think, ‘What have I done wrong as a mother or a father, or what have I done wrong as a spouse? Do they drink because of me?’ And that’s just not the case. They drink because they’re alcoholic.”
Finding Peace through Community
Just as support groups are essential for people who are recovering from substance addictions, they’re also extraordinarily helpful for the friends and family of substance users. That’s why John strongly encourages family members to attend Al-Anon meetings and work the same 12 steps that their loved ones are doing in AA.
For both substance users and the people who care for them, John emphasizes the importance of the first step in the recovery process. “The first step is we admit that we’re powerless. I’m powerless over your addiction. I’ve got no control over it,” he says.
Once this is done, friends and family members need to find emotional support from people who understand their suffering. Just like with recovering substance users, they need to know they aren’t alone in their struggles. Only then can they begin to move past their own pain and provide support for their loved one who is recovering from addiction.
According to John:
“We need to get with people that have been through this and find out that we’re not alone, because addiction isolates us. It’ll isolate the addict, it’ll isolate the family member, and we need to get out into the community and start to heal.”
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