Finding Warmth And Joy Amidst Addiction, The Holidays And Recovery - Part II
More tips for families of addicts to gain and maintain serenity this holiday season.
In part one of this three-part blog series, I discussed how trying to change the truth, the past or others is futile, unkind and, perhaps most importantly, unloving. We discussed how to find contentment and happiness without making others responsible for our feelings. Joy and peace are an inside job, and we cannot project our experience onto another or assume that we cannot feel uplifting emotions because someone makes choices that don’t fit our needs, wants, desires or expectations.
In Part II of this holidays and addiction blog series, we will look specifically at expectations. While trying to change what we can—ourselves, our attitudes and our actions—it is important to examine our expectations, which can begin with a few thoughtful questions.
Is what I am expecting realistic?
Are my expectations an attempt to force someone to change to meet my needs?
Is what I’m asking for based on mutual respect, understanding and acceptance of the individual I have an expectation of?
Am I respecting the individuality of the person or am I solely seeking to have my needs, wants and expectations met?
The following two tips can help you and other families of addicts become more aware of the expectations that you put on others, particularly your loved one with drug and alcohol issues. These tips can also help you develop ways to take personal responsibility for your happiness during the holiday season—and beyond—including setting appropriate boundaries and accepting the realities of addiction.
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” – Thomas Merton
Become aware of your expectations and adjust accordingly.
In families impacted by substance use disorder, it is the norm—not the exception—that the best-laid plans often fall apart. This is a reality of addiction that we must learn to deal with if we have any hopes of finding contentment, joy and peace in our lives over the holiday season—or any other time of year, really.
Our truth is that in families of addicts, we love an often unreliable and untrustworthy person. And, this is usually especially true if our loved one is in the throes of addiction or navigating the early days and months of sobriety. Dishonesty, chaos, confusion and unpredictability are all hallmarks of a substance use disorder. If our loved one is suffering from the drink or the drug or is in early recovery, they are either actively engaging in troublesome, chaotic behaviors or they are just learning how to address these symptomatic systems of the disease.
We must ask ourselves: Are we expecting too much? Too much too soon? Are our expectations realistic?
The great playwright, William Shakespeare, is credited with saying, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” I have come to agree with him.
The expectations I developed around my daughter and her addiction spun me into a never-ending cycle of disappointment, despair and anger. It wasn’t until I became willing to educate myself on substance use disorder and the neurological, physiological, chemical, psychological and spiritual changes that it has on a person who suffers from the disease that I was able to break free from the downward spiral of expectation and disappointment.
The more I learned about substance use disorder and its myriad of complexities, the more I came to understand that what I was expecting was unrealistic. I was expecting things that were impossible. I realized that I was angry, bitter, disappointed and raging not because my expectations were not being met, but rather because my expectations were unattainable.
I could have chosen to deny the science that demonstrates that addiction changes the chemistry of the brain and continued to insist that my daughter’s substance use disorder was a defect in her moral character—that it was a choice, a willful act that she was capable of stopping if she really wanted to.
Or, I could—and did—choose to follow where the science, data and experts in the field of addiction medicine and psychology led me to: Addiction is a disorder that impairs one’s ability to think, act or behave rationally due to a change in their neurological chemistry, brain pattern and activity. (https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain)
Through this education, I realized that I had been setting expectations that were unattainable then becoming disappointed, angry and hurt when they went unmet. When I moved from setting expectations based on my own wishes to setting informed and realistic expectations, I begin to experience a new sense of freedom, peace and contentment. I also developed a deep compassion for my daughter and the overwhelming sense of shame, heartache and fear she must face in her daily walk, knowing that her ability to meet the expectations she once had for her own life—much less those that others had of her—had become all but impossible while impaired by the disease of addiction.
“If I expect another person to react in a certain way to a given situation, and he or she fails to meet my expectation, have I the right to be disappointed or angry?” (One Day At A Time, 217)
While we have the right to have our own standards of conduct and expectations of ourselves, we do not have the right to impose those standards or expectations on others.
This holiday—and every day—it can be helpful to remember not to set expectations based on our own wishes, desires and hopes, expecting others to live up to them. Rather, it is our responsibility to set realistic expectations that allow people the opportunity to be authentically and honestly themselves and that honor the other as an individual who has wishes, desires, hopes and expectations of their own.
Have a back-up plan ready.
When in relationship with an active addict or someone in early recovery, always have a back-up plan— a Plan B— that you can implement if he or she doesn’t show up or cancels at the last minute.
As discussed in the last tip, expectations are risky business for those of us who live, love or otherwise engage with a person who struggles with a substance use disorder. And, having a Plan B is a simple yet amazing strategy that can make all the difference in your ability to gain and maintain serenity and peace of mind this holiday season.
Plan B example: Maybe you have tickets to your city’s local production of The Nutcracker, and you asked your loved one to attend the ballet with you. The tickets are for Friday night at 7pm. You contact your loved one a week before the show and he/she confirms that they are planning on attending the play with you. If he or she were not suffering from the disease of addiction, you’d probably not question the confirmation. However, the reality is that your loved one does suffer from a drug and/or alcohol abuse or addiction disorder, and confirmations have proven time and again not to be reliable.
This is where a Plan B comes into effect. Call a friend or another family member and let him or her know that you have plans to attend the Nutcracker with your loved one, BUT there is a very real possibility that your plans with that person may fall through at the last minute. Ask your friend or family member if he or she will attend if your original plan falls through.
Plan B could also consist of asking for several confirmations. For instance, check in one month out, two weeks out, one week out, a couple of days out, etc. If one of these attempts at confirmation is not met, let your loved one know a specific date that you will need confirmation by. If that date goes by unconfirmed, ask someone else to be your plus one to the event.
Another way to implement Plan B is to arrange to take your own car or driver. This option allows you independence from your loved one so you can arrive at and leave the event at the time of your choosing.
There are a multitude of options in developing a Plan B—these are just a few to consider. The main point of a Plan B, however, is that it demonstrates your acceptance of the reality of your situation. You are not relying on an untrustworthy person to be trustworthy, prompt or reliable. You are taking thoughtful action to be responsible for yourself and your personal happiness and understand that that the problem is not with the person who did not or cannot meet your expectation, but rather with yourself and your unrealistic expectation(s).
Expectations and distortion or unacceptance of reality are what lead us to frustration and misery when we place trust in a loved one who is suffering from the drink or the drug. It is a bitter truth to accept that we cannot trust and depend on an untrustworthy person, no matter how much we love him or her. We have to realize that we hurt ourselves by carrying expectations and hopes for a person who has shown us time and again that he or she cannot fulfill our expectations or carry our hopes.
The “magic” and “wonder” of the holiday season are not gifts that our loved ones are going to give us. They are gifts that we get to give ourselves through acceptance and trust. We get to accept the way things are versus the way in which we wish them to be and trust in our experiences. By acknowledging our reality—the reality of the dis-ease of substance use disorder and the inconsistencies that it brings, including the truth of our loved one’s behaviors and actions—helps us own our own emotions and expectations and ultimately heal. Acceptance, personal responsibility for our own well being and trust in our experiences are the gifts we give ourselves as we seek to engage in the “magic” and “wonder” of the holiday season and beyond.