“Detachment is not a wall; it is a bridge.”
–Courage to Change p. 22
Detachment. It’s often viewed as an ugly word, at least at first, by family members who love someone who struggles with alcoholism or addiction. Many of us come with pre-conceived notions about what detachment means. Most of us decide, without delving any further into the concept, that it means abandonment. And, we know that we’re not willing to abandon someone we love, especially when they are struggling, so therefore we won’t be detaching from them – thank you very much!
Luckily, those of us in family recovery have found that abandonment isn’t the truth about detachment. In fact, the “Detachment” bookmark published by Al-Anon Family Groups states that it “does not necessarily require physical separation.” How do we go about detaching from someone, while keeping them close by? How is that even possible?
I think it’s important to start by understanding what we are detaching from. Do we really need to detach from this person that we love, or do we need to detach from the behaviors that happen when addiction is present? Perhaps we need to detach from our concept of how they should be living their life. It’s quite possible we need to detach from the fear that drives us to stay up late worrying, driving to bars, and checking cell phone records or bank statements. Oxford Dictionary defines detachment as “the state of being objective.” How do we find a way to be objective about a situation when our emotions are involved?
My husband is in long-term recovery from alcoholism. There are times when he’s having a Bad Day that my fears get triggered. I look at him, I see that he’s not doing things in my timeframe to fix whatever is going on, and my head starts creating a story that goes something like this: “Oh no. He’s not taking care of this. What if this gets really bad? What if he relapses? What if we end up divorced? I’m going to live under a bridge!” I’m not sure why I always end up under a bridge in my fear scenarios, but there it is. When I’m feeling this way, it’s evident that my emotions are being triggered. What isn’t always evident is that I’m letting my perception of someone else’s reality control my emotions. The first step in detaching in a situation like this is to pause, and breathe.
After breathing, it’s helpful for me to check in to see what’s really going on with me. Where are the feelings I’m having coming from? Having grown up in a family system affected by alcoholism, and having been previously married to a man who struggled with alcoholism, it’s normal that I would have some residual fear that would show itself on occasion. It would be remarkable if I were always able to not project my fears on this man that I love, and this marriage I’m grateful to be a part of, but I haven’t found a way to not be human at this point. And, this fear has nothing to do with him: it’s mine.
I get to make a choice on what to do with my emotions. I could decide to share my fears with my husband in the midst of his already Bad Day, just to get it off my chest so that I can feel better – at least for a moment or two. Or, I can decide to do something else with my feelings. That’s where detachment comes in; it is the something else I can do.
In this particular example of the Bad Day, after paying attention to my emotions, and taking a moment to breathe, how I’ve often practiced detachment is by saying to my husband, “I’m over here loving you if you need me.” Sometimes it can be that simple.
“I’m over here…” In the midst of a Bad Day, that can be helpful to hear. We don’t have to be alone in this. It also is a helpful reminder for me: I’m over here. You are over there. We are not the same person in the same place having the same experience. We are two individuals in close proximity having two responses to the same event. And, although we are separate, I am here.
“…loving you…” Sometimes it’s just helpful to hear that you are loved.
“…if you need me.” Detachment means giving my husband the dignity to decide what he might need. This statement helps me remind him that I am willing to be helpful. It’s an invitation. And, sometimes that invitation is recognized right away, and we can now talk about the Bad Day.
And, sometimes the invitation isn’t recognized right away. Sometimes I am the last person my husband wants to talk to in that moment, because we are married, and sometimes he wants to work things through with someone else first. Sometimes he calls someone else to talk, either in recovery or close to him in his life. Sometimes he calls his Mom, who is in long-term recovery, too. Sometimes he goes to a meeting, or picks up a book, or pets the cat. Sometimes he goes to the gym, or to the creek to meditate, or outside to garden. Sometimes he picks up his guitar. Sometimes he writes in his journal. He finds his own way back to the path.
I am not his solution. I’m just the lucky person who gets to love him. He gets to walk through his journey, and I get to walk through my journey. Detachment helps us to walk together, side-by-side.
Detachment looks a little different for everyone. How you choose to practice detachment will vary based on your relationship and circumstances. It won’t feel easy to do at first, but over time it comes to feel natural. It comes to feel respectful. It comes to feel like love.
For more information on Detachment, see Al-Anon publication S-19, or “How Al-Anon Works” pps. 83 – 86.