Newly-Recovering People Need TLC At Holiday Time

During the Thanksgiving holidays, families come together and appreciate each other while giving thanks for the blessings of the past year.  They are loaded with emotion, and can be particularly stressful for families with members who are attending clean and sober for the first time.  There may be old wounds that have not healed, others in the family may still be drinking or using other drugs, and the emotions and memories of other holidays may make it difficult for everyone to remain calm.

Family gatherings are not the time to discuss old hurts, examine old scars, or hold people accountable for their past.  This is equally true of the non-addict members.  It is difficult to be thankful for your blessings if someone is starting an argument — or worse — at the dinner table.

We need to look at these things ahead of time.  Certainly the one thing that no one wants is for their addict to relapse, and everyone needs to remember that stress is a primary cause of relapse.  It is good if all family members are aware of this, and determine to keep the gathering calm and under control.  Also, be aware that some members may have hidden agendas with regard to the newly-sober person.  They may miss their drinking or drugging buddy, and put pressure on him or her to join them in one last fling.  Try to intervene without being obvious, changing the subject and removing the addict from the line of fire if possible.

As far as the recovering person goes, make them aware that you know they may be ill at ease, but that they should remember that they are loved.  Encourage them to bring a sober friend who can offer support.  Be sure that they have a beverage that does not contain alcohol.  If they have empty hands, someone is likely to offer them something to drink that may not be good for them.  Make sure that they have transportation, if they are not staying at home, and that they can be assured privacy if they are.  Let them know that you understand that they may have to step away from the party for a few minutes, or even leave early, and that it is fine if they do so.

Thanksgiving means homecoming.  In many ways, this will be your addict or alcoholic’s first homecoming in years.  If there are to be others, it is a good idea to make this one as pleasant as possible.

Families Need Support Too

We always encourage family members to seek counseling, because active addicts, along with inactive ones who are not in recovery (dry drunks), make everyone around them a little bit crazy.  The uncertainty, disappointments, emotional and — often — physical mistreatment, and the other aspects of loving an addict are not the ingredients of good emotional and physical health.  And then there’s the anger.

Anger is a perfectly normal emotion with an essential purpose: it keeps us from becoming incapacitated by fear.  Along with denial, it gives us the energy to work our way past the obstacles that we run across in life.  If we believed every negative thing that was said about us, or if we allowed ourselves to be stymied by the many obstacles that crop up in our day to day existence, we’d never get anything done.  

These things hinder us not only because they’re in our way, but because they bring fear along with them — fear of failure, fear that we’ll look bad, fear that we won’t measure up to our own self-image or the expectations of others, and fear of economic, social, or physical injury.  Anger and its little sisters indignation and annoyance give us the energy to overcome those fears, big and small, real or imagined, and to move onward.  To put it another way, no one functions well when they feel powerless or vulnerable, and anger helps us feel powerful.

Of course when anger gets out of control (rage), or we allow it to become habitual (resentments), it causes problems.  This can happen because we enjoy the feeling of power, or — because one of the characteristics of anger is tunnel-vision — it can help us overlook our own part in things, and make it easier to shift blame to the other party.  Anger depersonalizes our adversaries and makes it easier for us to justify our own behavior toward them.  All of these things have their uses, but they can obviously be seriously misused, as well.  Furthermore, over time, these ways of thinking about individuals and the world can become ingrained, and extremely difficult to change when they are no longer of use.  

Finally — but by no means least important — the physical changes that are produced by unresolved anger (undischarged energy) can be long-lasting and can create physical problems that are often fatal.  Stress-related diseases such as cardiovascular complications, eating disorders, other addictive disorders, diabetes, depression, frequent illness, and non-specific pain issues such as chronic head, neck and back pain can all be results of unresolved anger.

Anger doesn’t go away by itself.  If it isn’t discharged by physical and/or emotional release, or if it isn’t dug out, examined, and allowed to run its course, it will continue to produce stress and make life difficult.  This is especially difficult for family members of alcoholics and other addicts, because it isn’t “nice” to be angry in our culture, especially at family members, and practically never at authority figures lest they discharge some of their own anger issues in our direction.  Children are required to respect older people, for example, even when they have irrevocably proven themselves unworthy.  Talk about powerless…

So, families of addicts almost always have anger issues to address.  There are probably other things as well.  Children, in particular, have a tendency to blame their parents' problems on themselves, and those things need to be addressed.  Emotionally abused family members can add self-esteem issues to their anger, and everyone has resentments: birthdays missed, money misspent, obligations unmet…and on, and on.

It’s imperative that these things be put to rights.  Whether or not the alcoholic/addict stays clean, whether or not the family stays together, every one of the members have their lives irrevocably changed.  Unless the damage of those changes is dealt with, none of them will have the lives they deserve.  In the next article, we’ll discuss some options.


How Can I Help My Alcoholic Or Other Addict?

The short answer is, “You can't.”

Addicts of all kinds, including alcoholics, have to help themselves. They do not seek relief until they are so miserable that they see no alternative.  Therefore “helping” one is usually the worst possible thing that a friend or loved one can do. Making sure they have enough to eat, helping out with the rent, giving them a place to stay when they blow the rent on liquor or drugs, giving them rides to the liquor store, bringing them booze so that they don’t have to go out themselves, bailing them out of jail, allowing them to get away with stealing you blind — all of those things that seem like the sort of thing friends and loved ones do, in reality allow the person to continue in their alcoholism/addiction without truly facing the consequences. This is called enabling.

Those who truly wish to help a person with a problem will assure them that they are loved, but that they cannot expect assistance in anything but getting treatment and sobering up. Be aware that they will then pull out all the stops and try to bully or guilt you into doing things their way. They will make all sorts of promises. Don’t believe them. They are terrified of quitting — for excellent reasons — and they will do or say whatever it takes to continue drinking or using. They do not understand that they have a choice.

Well-meaning friends and relatives who try to take the pain and unhappiness out of the addiction are keeping the person from finding a reason to make changes, and until that happens, recovery IS NOT POSSIBLE! Enablers are helping their loved ones to kill themselves.

If you are a family member or employer, you can consult with an addiction professional about arranging for an intervention. Do not attempt to intervene on your own; it almost certainly will not work. Intervention specialists know all the tricks, and are able to set up immediate referrals to detox, treatment and so forth. You don’t have access to those resources, and an intervention that is only done halfway is likely to waste what may be your last effective shot.

All you can do to really help is drive them to detox when they decide they want to go there, and withhold all other assistance. There will be plenty you can do after they have been sober for a while and have learned to function on their own, but there is nothing you can do until they make up their mind to take that first step.

For their sake, don’t stand in their way by “helping”.

Helping, Or Just Getting In The Way?

This morning I opened my Facebook page to find that the father-in-law of a friend had passed away. That's not so unusual in old folks, but it could hardly have come at a more inopportune time for her. She's in Florida, under conditions that make it difficult for her to leave before the end of the week, and she has her children, 11 and 14 with her. While she'd like to be back in the Midwest comforting her family and sharing their grief, she's instead trying to console the kids, deal with her pain on her own, and get some work done. Gotta be hard.

The feeling of wanting to do something — anything — to help in such a situation is nearly overpowering. Of course that's not possible, but the feeling is still there. I think that sort of thing is hard-wired in humans: the desire to help other people in distress, even at our own inconvenience, and sometimes even at our own risk. It must have been one of the things that kept the clans together, back in the days when we were mostly nomads. It is so universal that it has to be one of the foundations of our human-ness.

Sometimes It's Best To Simply Walk Away

Instincts are good things. We didn't get them by accident; we have them because they conferred an advantage at some point in time,  so the customs — perhaps even genetic tendencies in some cases — got passed on. But instincts, like other good things, can be troublesome when they cause us continually to move in directions that are not in our best interest. Often, they're not in the best interest of the folks we're trying to help, either.

By now, many of you will have figured out that I'm leading up to talking about codependency and enabling. Well, enabling anyway. Many times our instinct to help friends and loved ones can cause us to do things that are not good for them, even though it might seem so on the surface.

The parents who over-protect their children, preventing them from learning the coping skills that  they will need after they leave home are one obvious example. The grandmother who bails her drunken or drug-addled grandchild out of jail, sees to it that his rent is paid, gets him medical care and so forth is another. She may seem to be doing the right thing but, if we look at it a bit closer, we see that her very acts of kindness are preventing him from confronting his problems and being forced to do something about them. Why change, which is always scary, when it feels better to stay where you are and let someone else do the work?

This sort of thing can be carried even farther: the wife who stays with the abusive drunk, jeopardizing her own wellbeing and that of her children, out of a mistaken notion that it is her “duty,” or that “he really loves us because he's so nice when he's not drinking.” Well I'm an old country boy, and I can tell you that rattlesnakes have nice markings and look harmless basking in the sun, but you don't want one in your kitchen. It's not that they're UN-predictable, it's that they're as predictable as all get-out.

We could keep going on and on, but I'm sure you see the point. We need to look carefully at our behavior, as it affects other people. We need to consider whether what we're doing is really what they need, or if it just makes us feel good, or dutiful, or needed, or simply relieves that discomfort that most of us feel when we see someone in trouble.

Empathy and kindness are well and good, but there really can be too much of a good thing, when it comes to helping. Are we helping or hindering?

In the case of my friend, well, she's a big girl — a scientist and world-traveler.  She can take care of herself.  She knows how to ask for help, and she knows that she has many more friends than most folks, ready and willing to jump in and lend a hand. There's a fine line between willingness to help and getting in the way.

Some Comments About Codependency

Codependency, originally called co-alcoholism, refers to a group of emotional difficulties commonly experienced by people who are involved with addicts: family, close friends, co-workers, and so forth.

Our Addicts Make Us Crazy

Addicts behave in crazy ways, and their behavior affects the people close to them.  As their codependents adjust their lives and attitudes to life with a person suffering from chemically-induced insanity, they begin to move away from normal behavior, in an attempt to keep life on something like an even keel.

To begin with, this may include things like calling the addict in sick when he or she is too impaired to make it in to work, or supplying drinks or drugs to keep the addict pacified.  Kids may make excuses for dad not being at their school activities, or their inability to invite friends home as guests because of mom's condition.  As the addict's functioning decreases, the spouse make take on more responsibilities, and may spend a great deal of time and energy trying to control the addict and keep him or her from using. Most of us have seen this sort of thing, and wondered why in the world people put up with living that way.

Family Secrets

The family is the basic unit of society, and family members are often loyal to a fault.  All of the family members adjust their attitudes and behavior to keep the family as stable as possible — to keep the family secrets — in the face of the worsening circumstances.  Older children may become companions and support for the non-using partner or, in the case of more than one addict, may have to care for smaller children — perhaps protect them from the behavior of the adults.

No one likes these changes away from a normal life, but all try their best to keep the house of cards from falling down because they do not understand that there are alternatives, or are afraid to explore them.  As the process continues, the rest of the family becomes as abnormal in certain respects as the addict(s), because of the forced deviation from normal relationships and childhood development.  Everyone becomes convinced that things can't go on this way, but everyone is stymied, and cannot see a way out — a classic double-bind, that is classically crazy-making.

Looked at this way, it is easy to see how families can come to need treatment as much as their addicts.  However, there is often a lot of denial on the part of codependents: “Hey, he's the crazy one.  I'm the one who keeps things together!”  Adult partners may become accustomed to calling the shots, and may resist giving up the authority when the addict gets into recovery.  Children will not trust the using adult, although they still feel the familial bond.  They will be terribly confused.  Unless these family members — especially the children — get some help dealing with the crazy thinking, emotional (and often physical) abuse, and other problems caused by being so close to an addict's behavior for so long, their difficulties adjusting to new relationships later in life are likely to be severe.

All of the above applies, to greater or lesser degree, to everyone who has to cope with an active addict.  We all adjust our behavior to accommodate the skewed antics of our addicts.  When the adjustments are too big, or last too long, we ourselves become sucked into the addict's world.  That is why we say that addiction is a family disease.  Just as alcoholics and other addicts will do whatever they need to in order to support their addiction, so do codependents change their lives and do whatever they have to do to adjust to life with the addict.  In a sense, they become addicted to their addicts.

Codependency is also common in family members and caretakers of people with disabilities, major grief issues, and other life-changing, chronic conditions.

What To Do?

There are a number of 12-Step groups, such as Nar-Anon, Al-Anon and AlaTeen, formed so that folks who have been through the madness of codependency can help those who are still “under the influence” get their lives together.  There are also treatment centers that offer specialized treatment for codependents.  Such measures are strongly recommended for folks with loved ones and friends in recovery, and will do a great deal to insure the survival of the family after treatment.