Watching someone you love struggle with addiction or alcoholism is extremely painful. I often liken it to watching someone dig a deep hole.
I look into the hole of addiction and there they are: this person I love dearly.
In the beginning I might not even notice that it’s happening. My loved one may pull out their shovel, shift a little dirt, come home, take a shower, and go on with their life. They may only shovel occasionally. The hole might actually look like it’s got a purpose to start with. But, then things start to change.
My loved one may experience some pain or an injury during their shoveling. They get dirtier. The hole gets deeper and darker. They get sick of the hole. They say they are done shoveling. But, then I come home after work, and there they are – back in the thick of it. I get confused as to why.
I try to think of ways to make this stop. I yell. I try to fill up the hole. I plead. I offer up alterative activities. I may even try to dig with the person that I love. I don’t know what to do, so I do anything I can think of. My efforts are not satisfactory.
I watch my loved one dig so far down that I can barely see them or hear them. They sound broken and scared, and very distant. It’s so dark in there! My heart hurts watching this. I’m afraid for them and I want to save them. So, I jump into the hole with them.
And, now there are two of us in the hole. Now there are two people who need to be saved from this fate.
For family members in their own recovery, this story can turn out differently.
The 2016 Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health (“Facing Addiction in America”) states “Mainstream health care has long acknowledged the benefits of engaging family and social supports to improve treatment adherence and to promote behavioral changes needed to effectively treat many chronic illnesses. This is also true for patients with substance use disorders.”
Family Recovery taught me a way to stand at the side of the hole, and not jump in. This wasn’t easy. There were times when I was desperate to jump; like jumping was the only the right thing to do! I needed support of others to keep me from jumping in. I needed their help to let go of the fear I had about the hole and the digging. I needed to learn tools to help me learn to respond in alignment with my values and the person that I am, rather than let my reactions allow me to be out of integrity with myself. I needed to hear the stories of how they found a way to not jump. I needed to trust that their experiences would work for me, too.
Family Recovery taught me that I didn’t cause this, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it – which felt difficult to acknowledge at first. But, once I could grasp this (with my head AND my heart), it allowed me to think about the ways that I do have influence, the things I can do, and the places where I could have some power, which allowed me to make changes in myself.
All I ever wanted was to be helpful to the person that I loved. I wanted to be a resource to them. But, in the middle of the impact that addiction and alcoholism has on family members, I had no resources left. I had no more left to give.
Family Recovery offers the opportunity to “put your own oxygen mask on before helping someone else.” I get to start raising the bar of what is happening in my relationships because of what I’m willing to do to for myself. It’s a strange dichotomy: the things that are best for me actually end up being the things that are best for helping my loved one.
And, when I’m able to follow through with this – when I’m able to find a way to detach and love my person without diving into the darkness – it’s much easier for me, with support, to stand firmly on the ground outside of the hole.I’ve found that this is the very best foothold (the foundation, really) for when my loved one reaches their hand out of the hole and asks for help.