Untangle Yourself From Your Loved One's Addiction

Last week in our loved one's group, Lois who volunteers in Haiti with her church group told this story. "One day while I was walking through the city on my way to get a bite to eat I came across a goat tangled up in knots. I was tired and didn't feel much like dealing with it. But I felt for the little guy. So i went over and untangled the ropes that twisted around him. Thinking about it later, I recognized that like the goat, I, too, was tangled up in my husband's alcoholism. Tangled up in worrying, controlling, nagging, and trying to fix him. I now understand that no matter how much I love my husband, I can't untangle him. Only he can do that. That's not to say that I still don't tie myself up in knots from time to time. But I do it less and am working hard to free myself from enabling." We nod our heads in agreement. We're also "all tangled up". And we identify with Lois' goal to free herself from co-dependency.

Here's another story that usually gets a laugh. A man sat under a tree full of pigeons. The pigeons did what they do best. The man shouted at them and thundered away. But then he realized that the pigeons were doing what they do because they were pigeons and not because he happened to be under the tree at the time. Those with substance abuse disorders will do what they do best: drink and drug. And, loved ones, like the man who sat under the tree, shout, nag and berate them instead of detaching and getting out of their way. Again, we identify with the man's anger and recognize his exasperation in this no-win situation. "Pigeons do what pigeons do," reminds us to step aside in order to protect ourselves.

In The Storyteller's Secret, Carmine Gallo writes, "If the self is a story, then we're all storytellers. The sooner we accept it, the sooner we can get started on the work of shaping our futures." In my loved one's group, we seek to shape a future free from the stigma of addiction and the burden of co-dependency. We cultivate healthy relationships based on trust. Stories help us build trust (which is sorely lacking in our relationships with addicted loved ones). They also inspire, persuade, and motivate. They can help us heal.

Here's part of my story. My adult son drifted from the margins for many years. In and out of rehab. In and out of recovery. At one point he ran out of money and returned home. "On only one condition," I said. "You must get a job and stay away from drugs and people that use." He agreed. Things went well for a few months, but then I noticed some changes. He got a fast food job and lost it. He assured me that he was actively looking for another. He wasn't. Some nights he didn't return home. I lost sleep worrying that he'd been in a car wreck or worse. Then one day I was rattling around in my jewelry box and noticed that my engagement and wedding rings were missing. After much cajoling on my part, he finally admitted that he'd pawn them. I felt humiliated when I dragged him to T and L Pawn Shop to retrieve my rings. He was high and acting out. I tried to calm him down. We were almost kicked out. Finally I paid the fee and we left. He continued to carry on and when we arrived home, he drove away in his car. That night I couldn't sleep. The next morning I packed his clothes in plastic bags, taped an envelope with a twenty dollar bill and the phone number of a homeless shelter to a bag, and set them out on the front porch. Then I called a locksmith to change the locks in my home. The Buddhists call such a moment of clarity "Right View." It's a time when you admit that truth of your situation. Others might label it "rock bottom," "the last straw," or "I've had enough." Regardless of the label, my decision was an important first step in self-care. Then again, I detached with anger, not love.

Several weeks later he called. I told him that I loved him, his family loved him, and we'd be there for him when he decided to get clean and healthy. Even when our relationship was most damaged, I always told him that I loved him and encouraged him to get help. Eventually, he had his own moment of clarity and went into treatment and aftercare. Ours has been a long journey. My son has been in recovery for three years. Not all stories have happy endings and mine still could go the other way.

In Wired for Story, Lisa Crom quotes cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker who says, "Without a goal everything is meaningless." Sharing our stories in a loved ones' group can help us connect and empathize and move toward the goal of self-care. We can learn how to interact with loved ones in helpful rather than harmful ways. How do we set boundaries, detach with love, and communicate effectively?

We can learn these skills by working with a professional therapist, talking with a trusted friend, practicing mindfulness and meditation, participating in groups (twelve-step or other), learning as much as we can about addiction, reading books, articles and blogs aimed at loved ones (link). I've found information from the Center for Motivation and Change (link) to be particularly helpful. It teaches the skills of self-care, the skills to help your loved one change, and the ways to reduce your loved one's substance use, whether or not they get formal treatment.

Stories shape our lives and the lives of our listeners. Stories of overcoming obstacles offer hope. Hope is the bedrock of recovery. Facts and figures clarify but stories help people take action. We can learn how to untangle ourselves from addiction's tight hold on our minds and hearts.


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