It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being. ― John Joseph Powell
Whether isolation breeds addiction or the other way around, few would argue that the two are inexorably linked. In his book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, author Johann Hari concludes that:
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”
And you would be hard-pressed to find a recovered addict who didn’t cite human support as an essential part of the recovery process.
But when a loved one is battling drug or alcohol addiction, it can prove quite difficult to break-down the walls of isolation to address the problem in a productive way. In fact, approaching the addict in the wrong way can lead him or her to retreat inwardly to a greater degree. As you explore the healthiest ways to address your addicted loved one, consider the following:
Understand Why Your Loved One Is Retreating
Identify an Appropriate Time for Discussion
Enter the Discussion Supported and Informed
Employ Honesty Versus Accusation
Define Realistic Boundaries
Recognize your own behaviors
If you haven’t experienced addiction first-hand, it can be quite difficult to empathize with your loved one. There is a tremendous amount of shame that thrives in the brain of an addict, and isolating from friends and family may stem from a misguided sense of love and protection. The addict may think, “I don’t want them to see me this way,” or “I’m such a disappointment, that they are better off without me.” Acquainting oneself with the typical inner-dialogues of addicts can lead to a more sensitive approach.
Confronting an addicted loved one in the midst of a disagreement or while he/she is heavily under the influence of drugs or alcohol is counter-productive. By observing daily patterns, you’ll likely identify the time of day when your loved one is more alert and receptive to interaction.
Families touched by addiction often channel all of their energy and resources into the needs of their struggling loved ones. As a result, the emotional health of the family system often deteriorates. Connecting with addiction specialists, therapists, and groups like Alanon is critical in this process, and will arm you with a sense that your loved ones highs and lows are far more navigable.
In the digital age, addiction resources are readily accessible. In addition to online support forums and blogs, you can find medical research articles and reputable guidance from trained professionals regarding the most up to date nuances of your loved ones struggles. Backing up your feelings with facts will allow you to come across to your loved one as both emotionally and intellectually invested in their recovery.
It’s natural to feel angry at your addicted loved one. But presenting him or her with disappointments and misbehaviors will only drive them further into isolation. While it is not your responsibility to protect the addict’s feelings, you can expect more productive results by approaching him or her calmly. Using “I” statements during the conversation like, “I feel worried and worn down daily when I see you shutting us out” versus “you” statements like, “You aren’t thinking of anyone but yourself when you hole up in the apartment” will reap more positive results. See more on “I” Statements here.
Providing your addicted loved one with housing, money, or even alcohol enables their behaviors. And in some cases this seems more compassionate than the alternative of “putting him out on the streets”. However, until boundaries are defined clearly in the relationship, the behaviors will persist. The task of setting parameters must be approached with compassion and at a time when your loved one is willing to listen. Realistic expectations involve small steps. An introduction with your withdrawn loved one may look like this:
Your father and I have sensed you pulling away for months and we feel concerned and scared. We want to be there for you, but we recognize that our support alone is not enough. We’ve made a list of five therapists in the area that we know can help you. If you haven’t made an appointment by Friday, we expect you to find other housing options.
Obviously, this conversation will vary based on the severity of the addiction and the types of behaviors being exhibited by your loved one. Reaching out to those in your own support system prior to the conversation can arm you with invaluable guidance in terms of how to proceed. Universally, however, you should only present consequences that you are 100% willing to enforce. If your loved one senses that he or she can “call your bluff” or can use manipulation to escape your boundaries, the toxic circumstances will persist.
It’s not only addicts that engage in patterns of isolation. Loved ones are likely, at certain points in the journey, to do this as well. “The main focus for an addict is substance abuse as he or she will often choose drugs and/or alcohol over family. This unhealthy pattern will breed isolation because as family and friends begin to recognize patterns, they will distance themselves to avoid being hurt.” Owning up to your own patterns of withdrawal may prove the perfect segue into a healthy dialogue.
The very nature of isolation makes it a difficult barrier to overcome. Approaching your addicted loved one in a compassionate and informed way may prove the turning point in this emotional journey. Recognize that maintaining supportive connections is just as critical for you as it is for the addict in your life. No one should travel this road alone.
Jen Anderson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), sobriety coach, former alcohol enthusiast, and writer living in Florida.