Navigating A New Path: How to help an addict with love, not fear

“Carrying around my emotions and those of my family members was exhausting and burdensome. I often couldn’t separate my feelings from those of my loved ones. They all felt painful, often debilitating. I tried to off-load them onto others, and whatever emotions I had regarding my daughter’s relapse I carried into my interactions with others—projecting the fear, worry, anger, confusion and frustration of her relapse onto them."

A friend of mine recently reminded me of this quote from a blog post I’d written a few months ago, Recovery and Relapse: When a Family Member Relapses. I had forgotten I had written those exact words, as is often the case for me. However, I had not forgotten the content of the post as I write as authentically and honestly as I know how to about my experience. I thought the timing of it ironic, however. I had just been with a group of friends that evening sharing about fear and how it, not love, is usually the driving force behind my choices.

For most of my years as a parent—I just hit 31 years in that role—I believed that love was the primary motive behind what I did as a mother. However, after years in my own personal recovery and now working as a family recovery coach, it turns out that fear, rather than love, has been at the helm of most of my decision-making processes—and not just as a parent. It has also strongly impacted the decisions I’ve made and behaviors I adopted as a friend, spouse, etc. Today, I understand the role that fear has played in my life. I honestly, authentically and comfortably own it. I don’t feel the need to rationalize it, deny it, excuse it or minimize it.

how to help an addict

Today, I also understand and accept that fear is a liar. And thus, fear has caused me to lie—to be dishonest about my intentions and my motives with myself, with those I love, and with pretty much anyone around me.

The primary lies that fear told me were these:

It’s because you love them that you are doing what you’re doing.

It’s because you love them that you are saying what you’re saying.

It’s because you love them that you are withholding what you’re withholding.

It’s because you love them that you are giving what you’re giving.

It’s because you love them that you are behaving the way you’re behaving.

And so on and so on…

The truth is that what I called love was, more often than not, fear masquerading as love.

This fear disguised as love behavior was true before my daughter developed a substance use disorder (SUD), and it became magnified as her disease progressed. I claimed “love” as the primary reason for the choices I made in response to her substance use. It has taken me years to realize that the choices I have made regarding my daughter and her disorder, both before I sought help (pre-program) and after I joined a program for families (post-program), have been fear-based—even those often touted as “right choices” or “program choices.” For example:

Pre-program “love” meant I did whatever I had to do to prevent her from obtaining a criminal record. Post-program “love” meant I allowed her to suffer the consequences of her “choices.”

Pre-program, “love” meant I provided multiple stints in treatment centers, sober living communities and the services of numerous therapeutic practices. Post-program “love” meant I had to determine if I was paying for her to seek recovery or if I was paying for a place for her to recharge her broken and wounded body, knowing that for her rehab was not meant to be a long-term solution, but rather a breather from the toll of the needle.

Pre-program “love” meant I intervened to prevent the natural consequences of her actions. Post-program “love” meant I let her feel the full ramifications of her actions.

As her disorder progressed and it became impossible for her to avoid the criminal justice system, pre-program “love” meant I showed up for visitation and put money on her books. Post-program “love” meant that I let her sit it out, alone, allowing her time to think about what had landed her there.

Pre-program “love” meant I provided a safe place for her to stay so that she wouldn’t be turned out on the streets, vulnerable and exposed to the crime and dangers of living on a bench, in a box or in a tent. Post-program “love” meant I put her out of my home when she could not stay sober.

Pre-program “love” meant I provided her a phone so she could stay connected to family, safe friends in the program and medical or legal services. Post-program “love” meant I refused to pay for a phone since I knew most of the calls would not be to me, but rather to her dealer or to deal.

Pre-program “love” meant I continually intervened to prevent her from making choices that could lead to her untimely death. Post-program “love” meant I let her “hit rock bottom.”

And on and on the “love” list went.

In reality, all of those choices—pre- and post-program—were driven by fear, not by love. I was driven by fear of her not stopping her substance use, fear of her not seeking help, and fear of her not wanting another way of life. Fear of how she would live her life for the rest of her life was at the root of all my decisions.

Let me be clear, I love my daughter—fiercely, undeniably, unequivocally and deeply. But, it was not my love that motivated me to do any of the above.

My compulsion to fix, intervene, prevent, engage and stop my daughter’s addiction as a result of my fear rivals her compulsion for her next fix. And, like my daughter’s desire to satisfy her craving through the needle, my desire to alleviate my fear has driven me to make irrational, dangerous and self-centered choices. The need to feel relief has outweighed my ability to make choices that may be effective AND loving.

How To Help An Addict: Navigating impossible choices

One of the consequences for family members of people who struggle with SUD is that we are often left with only impossible choices. And, love rarely has anything to do with them, while fear almost always does. These impossible choices resemble the post-program scenarios I listed above. Do I deny my daughter a roof over her head, food in her belly and safety from the rough and tumble streets of our city OR do I provide shelter and food, potentially minimizing her desire to seek another way of living, not to mention the personal, mental, spiritual and financial drain that ensues when I choose to allow a person with a chronic, progressive mental illness to live in my home? In this scenario there is no “good” choice. Sheltering my daughter does not move her closer to a life of abstinence or managed care, yet neither has denying her shelter. Pre-program, fear drove me to take her in over and over again. Post-program, fear drove me to turn her out over and over again. Neither has worked, but fear has been the primary motive behind both choices. I fear what will happen if I do turn her out. And, I fear not following prescribed program theories that might lead to her finding help and pursuing a life of sobriety or managed care. Either way FEAR is what drives my thinking and my choices.

A Path Carved By Love

Today, both as a mother of an active addict and as a recovery coach, I find myself contemplating a third way—a way in which love drives my choices, not fear. I don’t know that this new path will lead to good choices. I honestly don’t know if “good choices” are my current goal. I think, rather, that my goal today is making choices that are motivated by LOVE.

My new mission is to find ways to make choices rooted honestly in love, not fear masquerading as love. I am working on finding pathways through this journey. This approach seems to be a fairly un-navigated path in family systems, and families suffering from SUD often get lost along the way. Even with all my personal experience, training and education, I still stumble and bump around trying to find my own way from fear to authentic love. Sometimes I do. Other times I do not. But, I will keep trying. Like the early explorers, I hope to be able to use my travels to record a navigable path for other family members and loved ones of addicts and alcoholics to follow. My goal is to carve out a route that shows us the way through the often impossible choices we are forced to make as individuals who love, live with and/or are in relationship with a person suffering with a substance use disorder.

Knowing how to help an addict or alcoholic can be hard, and I invite you, my fellow traveler, to share your maps. If you have found pathways from fear to love—whether you forged them yourself or followed a path beaten by another—please share them with me. Let’s build this map from fear to love together.

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