In the aftermath of someone dying from addiction, it is common to go through the “What If’s”. It is normal for family members and loved ones often question if they did enough to intervene on the life of the addict or alcoholic as if this practice would absolve the supposed lack of action. A death resulting from addiction is particularly tragic because it seems so preventable and unnecessary. This past week our thoughts and hearts have turned to Whitney Houston and her family; the needless suffering, the wasted talent and the grief of her family.
Many addicts feel a certain sense of invincibility. Overdoses only happen to “other people”. It is this feeling of indestructibility that allows an addict to tempt fate one too many times often resulting in a dangerous trap that inevitably leads to death. An addict lives for the next fix. Years of use take a toll on the addict’s brain, resulting in memory loss and confusion. They quickly forget the consequences that they have experienced and instead cling to the most recent memory of the escape.
Family members and friends always want to help an addict recover and without realizing it, they contribute to this sense of invincibility each time they choose to rescue the addict from a natural consequence of their addiction. In the school of life I learned not to touch a hot stove because it is painful and will cause a blister, but if I don’t listen and someone continuously intervenes to rescue me from the pain, I never learn the danger. Not only am I not learning the danger but the anxiety has been transferred from me to the rescuer. Now the rescuer is more anxious about me touching the stove than I am. The rescuer has become more vigilant, concerned and irritable in their attempt to protect me. This is because they are keenly aware of the danger. Because they are using rational thought and a clear mind. This is something that the active addict does not have.
As difficult as it is, it is very important for the loved ones of addicts and alcoholics to let them experience their own anxiety and discover the dangers of their behavior. That is ultimately the only way they will comprehend they are not invincible. This is not to say that addicts should not receive help or support. It is important to know there is a real difference in helping someone and rescuing him. Help is out there in the form of 12-step recovery, treatment and therapy. These things are very important in the process of recovery. It can be terrifying for the family to let go because of the inherent risk of sickness and death, however this is the best the best way to deal with an addict. Family members often choose to keep the addict alive through rescuing and enabling rather than allowing him to face reality and “hit bottom”. It is in giving the individual the dignity of his choices that he is most likely to find recovery. Forcing outcomes rarely creates a lasting solution.
For the family members, there is also help. It is most helpful to the addict or alcoholic when the family member can begin to address their fears and anxieties and let go of the pattern of rescuing. It is only then that the addict begins to learn to “rescue themselves”. In my own path of recovery as well as my psychotherapy practice, I have learned that when families change, the addict changes. For the family member that is looking for answers, it is helpful to seek therapy with someone that is highly trained in addiction to begin to learn new ways of dealing with the anxiety of living with addiction. It is also highly beneficial to participate in 12-step recovery such as families anonymous or al-anon. These things work best when engaged simultaneously.
Remember when a loved one dies from addiction or experiences painful consequences and someone is tempted to go through the “what if’s”…stop! It serves no good. It is more likely people do too much than not enough.