Understand that they don’t understand.
There are two phrases that no longer have any meaning for the family of an alcoholic/addict who is actively using. They are, “I’m sorry” and “I love you”.
We’ve heard it all before. They’re always sorry and they always love us when they are feeling ashamed of their behavior. Not so much when they’re in the height of their disease. Those phrases become as meaningless to us as “Have a nice day” is from the grocery clerk. But, here’s the thing; they don’t know that. How would they, really? When they were immersed in their addiction, they didn’t care and we certainly didn’t tell them. Now that they’re in treatment and/or recovery they really mean those words. But the words are still very empty to us, particularly in the early stages of healing.
Most often we don’t share the damage that has been done to us because we’re so focused on helping our addict recover. We’re also afraid, in the beginning especially, that we will say something that will send them spiraling back out of control and into their addiction. We don’t say that we’re afraid because we don’t want the healing addict to think they are hurting us. For so long, our focus has been on the addict that we tend to take our own feelings out of the equation. For a while, we had to; in order to survive the addiction ordeal. The thing you have to remember is, just like the addiction involved you, the healing involves you also. It is not only okay for you to share how you are feeling, it’s vital.
In most cases, the addict was so under the haze of their drug of choice that they have no idea of the havoc they were wreaking in the lives of their loved ones. Imagine coming out of that haze and knowing you’ve done some things that hurt the ones you love, but not knowing what those things are. You would want someone to tell you so that you could begin to make things right. So tell them; share who you have become while they were using.
I was having coffee one morning with a recovering alcoholic friend who was recuperating from surgery in our home. His wife was unwilling to let him return to theirs. He had required the surgery as the result of a five week alcohol binge that had nearly ended his life. He was lamenting to me, “I don’t understand why Carol is being so stubborn. I’ve told her how sorry I am over and over again. She seems to want to punish me.” I said to him, “Dan, ‘I’m sorry’ has no meaning for Carol.” He just stared at me. I asked him, “How many times have you said that to Carol over the years? Carol’s really tired of hearing ‘I’m sorry’ and having nothing change. Carol has absolutely no reason to believe that this time will be any different than any of the others. Your perspective may have changed, but hers hasn’t.” There was more staring, and then he said to me with a look of complete disbelief, “That never occurred to me.” We sipped our coffee in silence for a while. Then he said quietly, “Thanks for telling me that.” My husband told me later that Dan had called his wife to tell her that he had never understood how much damage he was doing to her and that he thought he was only harming himself. You see, he didn’t understand, she didn’t tell him. So they were living in that emotional limbo with which we are all so familiar.
It wasn’t until I had that conversation with Dan that I really came to comprehend how important it is for us as family of recovering addicts to consciously separate the person we love from the person in their disease. Dan truly had no idea how used up his wife was feeling. I truly had no idea that Dan wouldn’t know that. The disease does that to us, to all of us.
When our addicts are immersed in their addictions they say and do things that they would most likely never do if they weren’t using. The thing is, for the family, even though we may know that intellectually; it doesn’t make those things hurt any less. My husband has been sober for six years. There all still times that I find myself filtering the things I say to him. That filter comes from the ingrained fear that he will react the way he did when he was using; which was often very unpleasant for everyone. He won’t react now in the way that he used to. I know that in my head. But my conditioned behavior from the years of living in the disease supersedes my intellect. By taking the time to see my husband as that man he is now, which is really all that matters; I’m able to release that fear a little bit more each time it comes up. And so, the healing continues.
Take a moment to consciously see the person you love. Give yourself that gift. If you can focus on the love between you and the aspects of the person that you adore, even for a few moments, the wounds heal. The more often you can get to this place of seeing the person outside the disease and through the love you have for them, the faster the healing happens. Perhaps even more importantly, the more you focus on the love, the quicker you will find that place of peace inside yourself that we are all seeking.