This article is for anyone caught up in a relationship with an addict. It’s an attempt to help you understand the destructive cycle you’re locked into.
And it’s a guide to how you can escape it with your health and your sanity intact.
Addiction to drugs or alcohol is terrible but dating an addict may be even worse. It is confusing, embarrassing, socially and emotionally destructive and very, very lonely. The partners of addicts often find it difficult to reach out to friends and family about the problem, preferring to suffer in silence.
What is Addiction?
Addiction is generally defined as a strong emotional and/or psychological dependence on a substance that has progressed beyond voluntary control. The most common addictions are to substances like alcohol and drugs but can include things like gambling, sex, porn and food. A 2002 National Survey on Drug Use & Health, (NSDUH), estimated that 22.8 million Americans (9.7 per cent of the total population) were in need of treatment for an alcohol or illicit drug problem. Of those needing treatment, 20.5 million (a disheartening 89 per cent of addicts) did not receive treatment.
Dating an Addict
The insidious thing about addiction is that it disproportionately harms those who love and care about the addict most. In an interview with the Online Ledger, Bruce Cotter, a recovering alcoholic, addiction counselor and author of When They Won’t Quit, said, “I have come to believe that the only thing worse than being an addict is to be in a relationship with one. Addicts take their spouses hostage. They will decide the overall health of the relationship: How they will parent. Where they will live. Who their friends will be. How much or how little money they will have. Whether or not they will have legal problems. Generally, how their lives will be lived.”
Of course those are merely the external effects of living with addiction. Perhaps more insidious is the emotional toll it takes on loved ones. To paraphrase Alcoholics Anonymous:
“Alcoholism is a family disease affecting everyone with a relationship to the addict. Those closest to them suffer the most, and those who care the most can easily get caught up in their behavior. They react to the alcoholic’s behavior; focus on them, what they do, where they are, how much they drink. They try to control their drinking for them. They take on the blame, guilt, and shame that really belong to the drinker. They can become as addicted to the alcoholic, as the alcoholic is to alcohol. They, too, can become ill.”
But Shouldn’t I “Stand By Them?”
The partners of addicts often spend years trying to “fix” their partner’s addiction. Twenty-five-year-old Susan* was dating Steve, a cocaine addict. At first he just partied late with friends and she didn’t suspect anything was wrong. “Then he started coming home later and then not coming home for days at a time. I thought that if I loved him enough, I could help him through it. The problem is that love isn’t stronger than addiction. It took me five years to figure this out.”
Doctor Floyd P. Garrett is a practicing psychiatrist and psychotherapist and Medical Director at Behavioral Medicine Associates, a private outpatient mental health practice in the United States, specializes in treating addiction. In his article, Addiction, Lies and Relationships, Dr. Garrett explains why love is often not enough to conquer addiction:
“In addiction there is always infidelity to other love objects such as spouses and other family — for the very existence of addiction signifies an allegiance that is at best divided and at worst, and more commonly, betrayed. For there comes a stage in every serious addiction at which the paramount attachment of the addict is to the addiction itself. Those unfortunates who attempt to preserve a human relationship to individuals in the throes of progressive addiction almost always sense their own secondary ‘less than’ status in relation to the addiction — and despite the addict’s passionate and indignant denials of this reality, they are right: the addict does indeed love his addiction more than he loves them.”
Addicts do and say anything to keep using. Says Jonah, whose wife Emma was addicted to the painkiller OxyContin, “Emma would tell me that she could quit at anytime she wanted, or she’d break down crying and admit how wrong she’d been but promise she’d change. The problem was she never did, and I got tired of hearing it over and over again.”
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