What to do when a relative or friend is a recovering addict

nobel.jpgI’ve been clean for a long, long time now. My DOC (drug of choice), Vicodin, is a distant memory now, but I will admit there are days when my resolve weakens.

My mind drifts and I fantasize about how good it felt, only to shake my head back out of the fog of remembrance and back to reality. The reality is, going back to that lifestyle is not an option for me. It is incompatible with my goals and the things I can do with my life now.

The challenge is in remembering this fact even in the worst of times. I was an addict and part of me always will be.

Does a prior addiction history mean that I should be sentenced to a life where I am not allowed to be gainfully employed or obtain educational opportunities? Should I be denied college entrance because I abused painkillers? Should someone not hire me because of something I did ten years ago? At some point is it okay to be great again?

There are people out there who believe this is exactly what should happen. For these people, no penance is or ever will be enough.

I don’t understand this unforgiving mindset. I have often said that if I were to receive the Nobel Prize for Medicine, a certain person in my life would be sitting on the sidelines commenting that the Nobel Prize committee must have lowered their standards by giving the award to someone with an addiction history.

Addiction is defined by the NIDA as a disease. Part of the addictive disease process is a maladaptive learning history. For instance, at some point, I learned that taking an opiate was an efficient means of feeling better. Whatever it was I was feeling bad about — or even that which made me feel great — it was made better by introducing an opiate high. Yet, for many, many people, this addictive process never happens. Other things make them happy. Family. Friends. A sunny sky. A good cup of coffee. A great TV show. Sports. Something fills that need — and yet, often in addiction, the most direct route to feeling “better” is discovered to be a drug or a bottle of booze. Frequent, habitual use of this substance/s leads to altered brain function.

And just like a person with diabetes needs to be on medication, the addict needs to obtain treatment too — often involving abstinence from the addictive substance. But often, the only real successful treatment deals with the core issues and the maladaptive process. The brain needs to relearn how to deal with the world in a more socially acceptable (and far less harmful way). And like someone with diabetes, treatment requires daily maintenance.

Can the diabetic relapse? Yes. Can the addict relapse? Yes.

So why is it the diabetic is treated with more respect than the addict?

I realize this is far from a perfect analogy, but I do wish families and friends would think before speaking to their addict friend or family member. Cruelty helps no one.

I have been clean for years. Yet, because I “came out” last year to my friends and family as an addict, I have had to deal with prejudicial statements and attitudes from a couple of people that attempt to pigeonhole me as hopeless. I suppose it would surprise no one that this judgmental attitude about addiction is precisely why I never “came out” before. Fortunately for me, most of my friends were amazingly understanding and being privy to this long-held secret only deepened our friendship.

However, the narrow-minded negative reaction is exactly what my pessimistic mind had expected and is very disappointed in.

I can say that my prior addiction history hasn’t been much of a hindrance in any way (except in my own mind). Schools have so far had no problem with it, and my current employer (who does extensive background checks and expensive hair drug testing) found it suitable to employ me. And I’m great at both.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t run into prejudicial people going forward, but so far, my merits and hard work have outweighed my past indiscretions. I just don’t understand the negativity. I really don’t.

But it’s not uncommon. I’ve talked to many people in recovery (and some who are still actively using) and this lack of understanding and forgiveness, particularly among family members, is pervasive. The addicts become demoralized in this atmosphere. How do you ever win? It does NO good for anyone.

So, a little advice to loved ones of addicts:

Don’t feel it necessary to bring up their addiction history all the time. If they’ve moved forward and are doing good things, let the past be in the past. Don’t be THAT GUY who wants to badger them about it constantly — or tell them that whatever good thing isn’t deserved because they were a scumbag alcoholic/drug addict. In other words, don’t be an asshole. And if your problem is that you’re still sore about the whole thing… then…

Forgive. Whatever screwed up thing they did to you, look at the person and realize that who they were as an addict is not an accurate representation of who they are now. That doesn’t mean they suddenly turned into a saint, but who is?  Life is all about second chances — wouldn’t YOU want one if it was you?

Understand. Not every day is going to be peaches and cream. Lots of days suck. Be understanding about it and, if you can, help them get through it. Be encouraging. Get that person out of their head and back to reality. Offer to go for a walk or to a movie or something — but be helpful, not hurtful.

Be honest. If you are angry, say so. If you are tired, say so. Don’t be afraid that anything you do will set off the addict. And secrets (particularly addiction) thrives in silence — the more you lie, the more they lie, and the more IT lies. If an addict is in recovery, they need to learn to handle your emotions as well as their own in an atmosphere of honesty. Engender and encourage that.

Take care of yourself. Don’t wrap yourself up in everything the addict is doing or saying or thinking. Don’t make saving them your mission — it isn’t — but being a non-asshole friend or family member IS your job. Get your own hobbies and go out and do things for yourself. De-stress when you need to. Addicts in early recovery are like colicky, screaming newborns. Take time out as necessary.

Let go and let God. They teach this phrase in recovery, and it’s as true for the addict as it is for their loved ones. You can’t control the addict — and yes, let’s be honest. Despite all efforts, they MAY relapse. That is NOT your fault, nor is it a personal weakness on their part. This disease is an ongoing battle — and make no mistake about it — it’s DEADLY. The only thing you can do is be a force of goodwill in their world, and by doing so, you can help lessen that chance of relapse. Leave the rest up to God/the Universe/Nature/Higher Power. That’s not your job.

Ultimately, if you love this person, you need to be a friend. Don’t tie this person down to the things they did “in the before times”. And frankly, it reflects more on you (and poorly, I might add) if you hang around this person for the simple pleasure of torturing them, making them pay for their past perceived mistakes every day, than if you were to forgive them and help them be that better person you know is just waiting to flourish.

If they truly are your friend — or your sister, brother, mother, father — and if you love them, they are worth it. If they aren’t important to you, and you find you can’t forgive and move on, then just go and leave them be. It helps no one for you to keep torturing each other.

As I said before, would you want any less for yourself if it were you?


“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck. ” — Frederick Douglass


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About madmargaret

Nursing student, Mac nerd, medical 'genius', recovering addict, singer, ex-actor, and all-around swell egg. Really!
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