In recovery, we try to speak from our own experience.
We have seen enough chaos and tried enough theories to know that our own strength, hope, and experience is really the only concrete thing we have to offer.
Today’s topic is one that is near and dear to my heart, because it has affected deeply the last 15 years of my life.
The topic is why it is so important to understand that your loved one is an addict.
Addiction can be a scary word. It conjures up images of people passed out on the floor or hanging their head in the corner of a jail cell.
The term “Addict” feels like a label and sounds like a life sentence.
And it is a life sentence.
But it doesn’t have to be a bad one. In fact, accepting that your loved one is an addict can be the cheat sheet that both of you need to finally understand one another and free yourself from the behaviors that are bringing so much pain, misery, and chaos into your lives.
I tried for 12 years of my married life to understand my husband and his behavior without seriously considering that I was dealing with addiction.
Even when he suggested he might be addicted to pornography I didn’t get it. Although I supported him in going to 12 Step meetings, it never even occurred to me to find recovery for myself or educate myself on the problem. I thought he was over-reacting, was being too hard on himself, was naive, or that he didn’t understand normal sexual feelings or reactions. And I certainly didn’t consider that his day-to-day attitudes and moods had anything to do with his pornography problem. I guess you could say I didn’t really believe that sexual addiction really existed unless it was some creeper guy who got sent to prison for the really twisted, abusive stuff you see on the news.
Life Before the Addict Label
So for 12 years I grew more and more frustrated as I tried to continue living a “perfect life,” understanding my husband and his behaviors through the lens of my own experience and my best intentions.
This is what I got from that:
- I grew increasingly resentful at his self-centered and hypocritical behavior
- I was baffled at his complete lack of accountability in many areas of his life
- I was confused at why he was so angry almost all of the time
- I felt responsible to fix his mood swings and did everything I possibly could to avoid setting him off
- I felt exhausted and overwhelmed from the burden of carrying the weight of our family and our relationship single-handedly
- I gave hours and hours of well-thought-out lectures highlighting to him the incongruency of his behaviors with his professed ideals
- I justified many of his behaviors as “normal” and would tell myself “nobody’s perfect” and try to improve my own attitude
- My husband’s addiction continued to progress, between years or months of white-knuckle sobriety, during which I would conveniently forget that the problem had ever even existed
- I started to hate him
When my husband’s acting out behaviors progressed beyond what I could tell myself was “normal,” and I hit a rock bottom of despair that I never imagined was possible, I really had no choice but to seek my own recovery. It was find recovery, or die. Really. It was pretty much that bad.
And then my husband and I started learning about addiction.
And suddenly the past 12 years of my life began to make sense.
For my husband, calling himself an addict wasn’t about giving himself a label or shaming him into making a change.
It was about finally understanding what had been happening his whole life and why he always ended up in the same place.
Trying to understand his behavior without understanding addiction was like medieval doctors trying to bleed people to cure them of epilepsy. Although they may have had the best of intentions, the treatment they prescribed did more harm than good, and had absolutely nothing to do with the actual problem.
Before understanding addiction, my husband’s understanding of his behavior was that he kept doing things he “shouldn’t” do, and if he just followed a few checkmark boxes, talked to the right ecclesiastical leaders, and never talked about it again, he should be all cleaned up.
But the problem is that sticking band-aids on the problem never did anything to actually clean out the wound, and he always ended up back to the doctor with a deeper wound the next time. Always being prescribed the same treatment. Always ending up back in the office with a deeper cut. Maybe it would take days to get back there. Maybe months. Sometimes years. But always back. Will-power, “Shouldn’t’s” and Sweeping under the rug were just bleeding him out.
Living with the Addict Label
Now that we understand my husband is and always will be an addict, we enjoy the light of truth and understanding that gives us:
A Shared Vocabulary
We understand surrender, isolation, shame, vulnerability, submission, boundaries,and the drama triangle. Now we have words to talk about things that were always happening right under our noses but we were completely unconscious of.
I can say, “Honey, I feel unsafe with the way you reacted to our son today” and my husband will know exactly what I am trying to say and won’t look at me like I’m crazy or react defensively like I just accused him of dropping the atomic bomb on Japan.
We have words to express our experience. We can finally communicate. These are all terms and concepts that were brought into our awareness by educating ourselves on addiction.
2. An Early Warning System
Understanding addiction has meant understanding my husband’s addict cycle. This looks different for each person, and is often filled with all sorts of “normal behavior.”
Once my husband understood he was an addict, he was able to identify an “addict cycle,” with routines and rituals that inevitably lead down the same well-worn route to acting out. Now actions or patterns of behavior that we both would have justified as “normal” in the past can give us an early warning sign that something is off, and I can trust my gut and approach my husband:
“Honey, I’ve noticed that you have been on ESPN.com a lot over the past few days. I know that browsing sports online has been a way for you to check out and has fed into your addictive cycle in the past. Is everything alright with you?”
Often, my awareness is the first warning sign for my husband that something is off for him, and sparks him to work his own recovery with emotions that need to be examined and surrendered.
Before understanding addiction, these “normal” parts of my husband’s addict cycle would never have been identified and would have carefully led him down the same path he had always taken. Indeed, this is the path that has been burned into his neural pathways, and the paths that he will be susceptible to his whole life.
This is why my husband and I will gladly accept our life sentence, knowing that understanding the path that addiction has burned into his brain will always be there, and certain boundaries must always be in place to avoid going back there again.
3. A Community of Love and Support
Many times in the past 3 years I have been overwhelmed to tears at the gratitude I feel for my Twelve Step Fellowship.
Whenever I hear of a tragedy or difficulty somewhere in the world, I have often wondered, “I hope there is a support group for that…how do people make it through their stuff without a support group?”
As I have reflected on my years in recovery, while I cannot deny that loneliness is still there at times, I have mostly held the visualization of myself in a bounce house. Every time I stumble or topple over or collapse, there is love and support, strength and experience, to buoy me up again.
Truly, accepting addiction has given me one of the most precious resources I have in my life: My Twelve Step Fellowship.
4. The Twelve Steps
I have always been a religious person. I have always valued spirituality. But never in my life have I experienced the deep connection, love, and communication with the God of my understanding that I have gained through working the Twelve Steps.
The Twelve Steps have given me a roadmap to feel His love, His power, His peace not just on Holy days, but on a Moment to Moment basis in my everyday life.
The Twelve Steps are allowing me to see who I truly am, who God truly is, and who all others are, and all of it is so much more beautiful and perfectly broken than I ever knew it could be. Without understanding that my loved one is an addict, I would never have known that my life is unmanageable and I am powerless.
The Twelve Steps wouldn’t have made any sense to me. Accepting Addiction into my life has opened up a new universe of spiritual growth.
5. An Understanding of What Is Actually Happening
Before understanding addiction, my husband’s behavior made no sense. “Are you crazy?” “What were you thinking?” “How could you make such stupid, selfish decisions?” These are all questions that both crossed my mind and came out of my mouth. His behavior at times seemed reckless, senseless, and downright stupid. And unfortunately, I often interpreted this behavior as my fault: that it happened because I was fundamentally not enough.
Now that I understand addiction, I no longer see the things he did and think “What kind of a terrible person would DO something like that?” with fear and self-righteousness all mixed together in an ugly mess.
Instead, I understand that any use of pornography, no matter the level or frequency, is a coping strategy that needs to be addressed, examined, and explored with safe, loving, support.
And I also understand that NO level of pornography use should be tolerated, justified, or “swept under the rug.” I have come to know by my own experience what Dr. Jill Manning, PhD has declared through years of research and clinical experience:
“Pornography is neither harmless nor helpful. It is a mood-altering, belief-changing, relationship-damaging, addiction-forming, socially-harmful, spiritually-deadening, life-crippling practice, through which one practices the ways of the adversary.” – Jill C Manning
For me, the important question is not, “Is my son/husband/loved one an ADDICT?” (Cue scary music and screams).
The important question is, “What is hurting right now that is causing you to try to cope in this way?”
The important question is, “What are better ways we can deal with these difficult emotions when they come (as they most certainly will)?”
The important question is, “What boundaries do we need to set in place to keep you from following these familiar patterns of coping with difficulties?”
For me, understanding and accepting that ADDICTION is in my life has enabled me to begin asking the right questions, the questions that have led both my husband and I to truer connection, communication, understanding, and healing.
And there’s no shame in that.