Researchers have shown, time and time again, that stigmatization is strongly associated with Addiction and Addiction Treatment. However, there are times when it is appropriate to “let go” of an addict. Now, someone may tell me, “But, aren’t you the ‘compassion for an addict’ guy?”

And to that person, I say, “Yup, but when an addict is actively mired within the cycle of his or her addiction, there really isn’t anything you can do to change it. Have compassion, but that also means have compassion for yourself. If an addict’s behavior is damaging to you, then you can either continue to place yourself in harm’s way, or you can remove yourself from the addiction.” What people fail to understand is that compassion means “with suffering.” It all comes down to tolerance and someone’s capacity to share another’s suffering. Addiction causes suffering at all levels of human life and if you aren’t “ok” with the suffering, you have to make yourself safe.

“So, then,” the person may say. “Are you saying that I should let my loved one die?”

The reason why I think people ask that particular question is that they think they can trap me into contradicting myself. What they fail to understand is that there’s nothing anyone can do for someone who is choosing the addiction, by default. One of the hallmark traits of an addiction is compulsion. That is, addicted people are unconsciously driven towards the object of their addiction. This means that in order to disrupt the addiction, there has to be conscious thought applied towards recovery. If there isn’t that conscious thought, then there can be no conscious behavior towards recovery or health. Because of this fundamental misunderstanding, I am comfortable in replying, “If your loved one isn’t acting towards recovery, then you are at risk of getting immensely damaged by your loved one’s addiction. You aren’t going to change anything and until you see evidence of real desire for recovery, there is only suffering awaiting you. You either make peace with that suffering, or you remove yourself, but if you’re going to be in a place that you can’t handle, there’s nothing you can do but to remove yourself. YOU CAN’T OWN SOMEONE ELSE’S HEALTH.”

More often than not, I’m met with anger at having said that. But the reality is that if someone can’t tolerate the suffering that comes with Addiction, then that someone needs to step away. It’s hard to do, but necessary. Recovery is a realistic goal, but if someone doesn’t act towards that goal, it will not happen. It’s like someone wanting a college degree but never even looking into enrolling. Things just don’t happen by magic; goals need action. Recovery is no different.

So, if someone is pursuing recovery, we should do our best to support that person. BUT, if someone is actively pursuing addiction, we need to accept our own limitations and be as safe as we can. Stigmatizing someone who wants recovery should never happen, but placing healthy distance between us and an addict still active in his or her addiction is sometimes the only choice we can make.