Addiction is so prevalent today, in families, and in the workforce. I am writing this article for the purpose of sharing some personal insights of what it is like to be in a working or personal relationship with an addict. The goal is to provide some helpful information to anyone who may have a team member, friend, or family member struggling with addiction. I have never been an addict myself, yet I have had many family members and friends struggle with addiction, so I am a layman expert, so to speak. I have had several clients struggle with addiction in their families, and in their teams. I have also spent the last 8.5 years serving on a Board of Directors for the Matt Talbot Center, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Seattle, WA. I am writing this based on my own experiences, to help anyone who is living with someone struggling with addiction, to gain a healthy perspective.
Characteristics of an addict
Addicts are concerned about one thing, their addiction. If their addiction is drugs, they are more concerned about getting drugs, than anything else. If it is food, gambling, or porn, the same rule applies. Life events trigger the addict to seek their substance of choice. It is important to understand this because the healthy brain has a hard time reconciling why a person won’t stop eating when they are obese, and they tell themselves things like, “If they really loved me, and cared about our relationship, they would stop binge eating.” Or, “Why they won’t stop gambling, when we have no money left?” The reality is, if you go back to my first statement, they care more about the cake, or the next jackpot, than you, or anything else in the entire world. This may sound harsh, it is just the truth. Why does someone with a beautiful wife and family, engage in risky behaviors and feed their porn addiction? Because they are unhealthy. Because they are addicts.
The next important thing to realize, is addicts lie. They lie a lot. They lie to themselves, and believe they can stop anytime. They lie to you, and to anyone who can possibly stand in the way of them, and their addiction. The addiction drives their life. They can’t stop, they don’t want to stop. I worked at a company once where HR was concerned about people watching porn on work computers, so they had someone in IT run a report of any employee who has accessed porn, and the frequency. The investigation was halted when they discovered the highest rated user was the CIO. Remember, addicts will tell you as little as possible, hide things, and in many cases, lead a secret life, all to maintain their #1 relationship.
Addicts will not rest until they get their fix, and if you happen to be in their path, you can get blamed, or sprayed with negativity. Addicts are masters at blaming other people for their addiction. Imagine coming home from work, and finding your partner intoxicated. They tell you it is because you work too much, and don’t pay attention to them, that they drink. Over months and years of hearing this, it is easy to become co-dependent and accept the blame. Then, our lives become about doing everything and anything to keep our partner happy, so they don’t drink. When we focus on our needs, we feel selfish. The truth is, they drink, because they are an addict. It is not your fault, they are sick.
Addicts are not healthy people, so it is crazy to believe that you can be in a healthy relationship with them. It is impossible, until they treat their addiction. Until the addiction is treated, they are not able to contribute to a relationship in a truly healthy way. Their addiction will continue to impact your family, or your team, if they are a work colleague. They are all about themselves, and their fix, so you and everything else come in farther down the list. This can feel very unfulfilling, and lonely. It is difficult to develop a truly intimate relationship with an addict, because they are so focused on themselves, and what pleases them, not you. They are great at blaming you for why they are unsuccessful, unhappy, using, you get the picture. They are not at peace, ever. They struggle every day.
Addicts are very ungrateful, and typically obsess about people who they feel have wronged them in some way. They don’t recognize the good around them, the blessings in their lives, because they are blinded by their addiction. If you are never recognized for the things you do for the addict, don’t expect to be. In treatment, addicts are encouraged to keep a gratitude journal, and to find something every day to be grateful for. This focuses them on what is going right in their lives, the things they have ignored for years, and refocuses them away from the substance. Many recovering addicts have communicated to me that this gratitude exercise has helped them stay sober, daily.
Addicts will always be addicts. There is no cure. So many times we hear of a person stopping drugs, only to pick up an addiction to porn. The fact is, they have this type of personality. The core issue of an addict, is their addictive personality. Their brains are actually wired differently. I am not a brain expert, but I know this to be true. That is why they think so differently, act differently, and have an issue stopping a behavior, that they know is killing them. This goes against our human instinct, therefore it must be a brain issue. Addicts in remission work at being sober, every day. If a person is sober for years, and uses, they will quickly slide down. A person rarely or ever stops their addiction, forever. They may take measures to prevent it, try to do it less frequently, work on changing their diet and exercise routines to combat, or quickly work to get back in line when they slip. The reality is, they will slip. Just like gravity, it requires 100% focus on healthy behaviors. This is why many addicts become addicted to counter behaviors, such as excessive participation in AA, exercise, church, a hobby or project. They replace one addiction with another. One could argue that exercise is better than heroin. The point I am trying to make, is the addictive behavior is the same, just repurposed.
In order to live with addicts, we develop coping mechanisms. These are unhealthy behaviors that many times, enable their addiction. Our life is driven by the needs of the addict, and their mood that day. We live in a world where when things are good, we can feel relieved, or a false sense of hope. Or, we wonder how long it will last. When things are bad, we blame ourselves for being responsible for the addict’s behavior. This is an endless and exhausting co-dependent hell. It will not change, until the addict changes, and until we seek help to better deal with them, and ourselves. We can become numb, unconscious, and helpless. A true sign of a co-dependent in a relationship with an addict is guilt. This is because we are told over and over it is our fault that they do these negative things. We defend their behaviors, and make excuses for them. This continues the lie. My counter argument to this, is think of horrendous things that humans have had to overcome in life, and they are not doing drugs, or eating an entire sheet cake in one sitting. Therefore, no matter how horrible of a partner you have been, or how horrible their father was to them, there comes a time for them to take personal responsibility for their own behavior. The biggest issue is, the disease causes the addict to blame others. If you are the closest person to them, you will be a target.
What can I do to help them?
Nothing. You can’t do anything to help them. You are not causing their addiction, and you can’t cure their addiction. The only person that can help them, is themselves. Many times, people won’t seek help until they have had major loss in their lives. This means hitting rock bottom, or losing everything, and everyone. The reality is, they will get help, when they are ready to get help.
Should I stay with an addict?
I can’t answer this question. I think if you do stay, you should get some counseling to work on any co-dependent issues you may have developed over time. Stop living in denial about your co-dependent issues. You would have had to develop them to cope and survive. Seeking professional help should give you new ideas and perspective on how to better deal with the addict in your life. My personal opinion, is the best approach is to get away from them, and remove yourself from the unhealthy situation, so you can regain a healthy perspective. This is not a selfish path, this is a healthy path. A professional can help you sort out the best path for you. A sign that the addict is truly trying to recover, is they acknowledge what their addiction has done to damage their life, and the lives of their spouse and children. This recognition and communication to people they have hurt is a true sign of recovery. Just because someone is not drinking as much, or binge eating as often, does not mean they are truly healthy, or in recovery.
Should I fire the addict?
I think the safe road to take here is to inform Human Resources that you suspect a substance abuse issue, and seek their guidance. Don’t keep these things to yourself, and don’t ignore signs. I don’t recommend addressing the person about the addiction directly. Instead, I recommend addressing the behavior and work related issues, such as tardiness or poor performance issues, and document everything.
How do I stay sane?
Tell yourself it is not your fault. Try to counteract the negative with positive life experiences, other positive people in your life. Stop blaming yourself for their addiction, and stop allowing them to blame you. Try to connect with your feelings, and stop disassociating. Make yourself a priority again. Seek professional help, and wake up and do something about you. If you can’t change them, you can work on yourself. Remind yourself that they are sick, tell yourself they have cancer, so you can keep it in proper perspective. You would not expect a person with terminal cancer to act 100% healthy, with healthy behaviors, so don’t expect it from the addict. Remember, you can’t expect to be in a healthy relationship, with an unhealthy person.
Amy Hedin is an Executive Coach at HumanPoint, a Bellevue, Washington based executive solutions firm. She serves on the Board of Directors for Matt Talbot Center, a drug and alcohol treatment center, based in Seattle, Washington.