Scripps Ranch and Bankers Hill Therapist Sara Cole.
By Sara Cole MFT, San DIego Therapist
I used to work in a drug treatment facility and one of the first questions I was always asked by addicts was “are you an addict”. No, somehow, I am not. It is everywhere in my family and somehow, I snuck through. So, at first, I would just say “no I am not an addict”. The problem with that answer is that it only told them half of my honest answer. My genuine answer is that I am not an addict, but I have a lot of experience with addiction and the destruction it causes. I have loved so many people who struggled with addiction. So, my experience is that of someone who loves an addict, like a parent, a sister or brother, a child or a partner, or even a friend or coworker. I lost a sister at 30 in a tragic accident as the result of her drinking. I feel like I am losing my other sister to addiction as well. And yes, we need to provide treatment for addicts. We desperately need more treatment available. But those who surround the addict also need help and support. I think we are sometimes forgotten.
This is a subject that I am a little uneasy writing about. I don’t want to discount the pain and struggle of being an addict. I don’t want to take away any help that is available to people struggling with addiction. I do want the addict’s friends and family to know that it is so normal to feel all those feelings you are feeling. That overwhelming anxiety, the sadness, the guilt, the anger, frustration, hurt are all normal. You are also suffering because of addiction. You also need support in healing from this disease. That is why they call addiction “a family disease”.
Over the years I felt guilty for needing help when I wasn’t the one addicted, but I got help anyway and it made all the difference. It hasn’t brought my sweet, creative, kind sister back. It hasn’t cured my other sweet sister of her addiction, but it has made me stronger, less confused and less under the complete control of their every action and choice. Talking this through with others, reading, listening, practicing has allowed me to get my life back and not have my life be all about their addictions. I don’t care about them less, but I now care for myself as much as I care about them.
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” This is the first line of the Serenity Prayer. It doesn’t have to be a prayer to god. It can be to anything greater than yourself or it can be a goal you have for yourself. It sounds easy, but when you really try it, it is not. You can’t change other people. You can’t force them to do what you want. You cannot make your addict stop using. Only they can make that choice and take those actions. And even though I strive to accept this truth every day, it still makes me mad. I did a lot of grieving as I came to accept this truth. I had to give up the allusion that I could fix things. It’s interesting though, that once you really get this, you feel a huge sense of relief. The relief comes from knowing that you can stop doing all those things you do to try and change or manipulate that person. Things like throwing alcohol away, tracking their car, searching their belongings, bargaining, lying for them, giving them money, begging and pleading. It’s not your responsibility. No matter how badly you want that power, you don’t have it. That puts the responsibility back on the addict, where it belongs, because they are really the only one who can make that decision for themselves in the long run. It may even empower them to take responsibility in some cases.
“The courage to change the things I can”. This is the next part of the serenity prayer. You get to decide what you do. That includes how you are willing to live your life, what you are willing to be around, how you will react to situations, what you will spend your money on, etc. You have control over you. That’s the power you have, so use it wisely. Sounds easy right? Sometimes, sometimes not. When your son calls from jail and wants you to bail him out because he got arrested for drunk driving, you get to decide how you will respond. You can go rescue him because that’s what your parental instinct tells you to do. Or you can step back and say, “he made the choices that got him there and these are his consequences.” “Will he learn more from me bailing him out or from having to sit in jail over night?” “Do I want to spend my money to bail him out again”. “Will this help or hinder him from seeking treatment?” “Will this help or harm me?” “will I let him sleep at my house?” You get the idea. You get to chose if you want to go to your sister’s house for dinner. If there is going to be alcohol there, you get to decide if you go or not, but you don’t get to decide if there is alcohol there or who drinks it or how much. These are hard and sometimes confusing choices and that’s why we need the COURAGE to change the things we can. It can feel heartbreaking and counter intuitive at times.
“The wisdom to know the difference”. The final part of the prayer. The wisdom is not automatic for most people. It is learned and practiced and refined over time. The things that have helped me in the decision-making process are two questions. “Is this something I actually have the ability to control? And “Does this support their addiction, or does it support their recovery?” For example, when my sister calls me from a pay phone and wants me to come pick her up, my immediate response it to go get my baby sister. But then I ask myself that question about what it helps and then it’s clear to me what I am willing to do for her. I will absolutely go pick her up and take her to treatment right now. I will not go pick her up and feed her and give her money and drop her back off at a friend’s house. I think that would help her addiction and I refuse to do anything to help addiction which is a slimy, manipulative little monster that wants to take total control. She may get mad and that’s HER choice. I can’t go find her and somehow force her to go to treatment. I wish I had that power, but I don’t. So why waste my time. The other thought that helps me at this point is to remember to not take the addicts actions personally. They are sick, and they may do terrible things to get their drug and protect their drug, but it really is not about you. It has nothing to do with you. And the sooner you realize that, the better off you will be. We all get to make our own choices, even when they seem like completely terrible ones to others. For me knowing that this is not my person, it is their addiction doing these things, helps me not be crushed.
My point in all of this? I think I am trying to say a couple of things. I want to help the people that care about addicts. I want people to know that they can feel angry, hurt, scared, guilty, jealous, etc. It’s normal. You don’t have to allow someone else’s addiction to ruin your life and prevent you from finding joy, contentment and satisfaction. You can care deeply and wish for the best and be supportive AND protect yourself. You can choose love to yourself enough to not be taken down by something you have no control over.
Sara Cole has been providing mental health services in San Diego for 15 years. Sara specializes in working with women and teen girls to overcome trauma and major life changes, including postpartum depression and anxiety. She is also passionate about providing treatment to those whose lives are affected by the addiction of a loved one.