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Some "Do's" and "Don'ts" for Loved Ones

In Drinking in America: Our Secret History, Susan Cheever describes alcoholic families as “nightmarish places, heartbreak machines in which the innocent fare worse than the guilty.” No doubt family and friends whose loved ones abuse substances experience heartbreak. But we also experience a whole lot of confusion on how to cope best with addiction, which AA has described as “cunning, baffling, and powerful.”

We’re urged to let go, but how do we do that with love? What boundaries do we set? How do we stick to them? What happens when we fail to stand firm and give in to pleas for money for rent, for traffic violations, for car repairs, for cell phone bills, and even for food on the table. (Once my son, who relapsed and lives out of state, called and asked me to order and pay for a pizza because he didn’t have any food.)

Advice abounds. Lots of do’s and don’ts. This advice is sensible. Yet, often loved ones find it difficult to put this advice into practice and follow through. Recently, while digging through my files, I came across a copy of a letter titled, “If you love me, let me fall all by myself," written by an addict to his family and friends. It contains a list of don’ts:

  • “Don’t try to spread out a net to catch me.”

  • “Don’t throw a pillow under my ass to cushion the pain so I don’t have to feel it.”

  • “Don’t make choices for me.”

  • “Don’t clip my wings before I am ready to fly.”

  • “Don’t let the burden of addiction fall on your shoulders.”

Loved ones can identify with these don’ts. Mea culpa. I’m guilty. I’ve spread the net, cushioned the blow, and blamed myself for my son’s addiction. Two steps forward, one step back, and many missteps along the way. The poet Rumi, wrote, “As you start to walk out of the way, the way appears.”

We can take steps to walk out of the way and release ourselves from the burden of our loved one’s addiction. Here are a few suggestions:

Do arm yourself with information about addiction:

Do seek help from professionals and people in self-help programs for loved ones:

Do let your loved ones know you love them.

Do create and stick to your boundaries (and recognize that you may backslide).

Do help support your loved one’s recovery (but don’t interfere with it).

Above all, do be kind and gentle to yourself because dealing with a loved one’s addiction tears out your heart. And a broken heart takes a long time to heal.

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