Sometimes there needs to be distance placed between yourself and an addict

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.

  1. Good post, Juan.

    My younger son was 18 when it became clear that he had serious problems with pot, psychedelics and ecstasy. We spent a year going to outpatient treatment, but it was a kind of enabling for him. He went, was honest, and calmly made clear that he’d continue using. Finally, after he barely graduated high school and was planning to move out of the house and live with friends, we selected an outward-bound-type residential program for him and called in an interventionist. The hardest thing I’ve ever done was to tell my son that he’d be barred from the house with no access to the car he’d been using and no financial support unless he went with the interventionist to the recovery center in a distant state. He agreed to go and spent 83 days there. It was on the 70th day that he decided to stay clean and “surrender” to NA. He is sober and clean today, two-and-a-half years later, sponsors two young men, and serves on regional NA committees where he lives, 130 miles from us. My wife is a psychiatrist, and whenever I had my doubts about taking a hard line, she’d tell me what she had seen too many young people die and couldn’t take that chance with our son.

    Our other son — older — was an alcoholic, and we never understood the depth of his problem — until after he died at the age of 29 in an alcohol-related accident. That was after our younger son had been clean for about a year.

    So, yes, and it’s not just a matter of danger to others when we enable someone’s addiction. It’s a matter of danger to them, too.

    1. Whoa — thank you for sharing your stories — it appears you’ve seen the dangers of addiction and the health of recovery. I am deeply sorry for your loss. If you don’t mind the question: How has your older son’s passing informed your spiritual views?

  2. My son Thomas died June 1, less than eight months ago. I’ve written about in in various posts, but you might particularly want to read this one,

    For about 30 years, a spiritual life and a spiritual community were important to me, and in the wake of losing a child I handled my grief by diving deeper into spiritual reading, thinking, watching videos. I decided at the start of September to begin posting daily on the blog I had started years ago and let lie dormant. It turned into Melting-Pot Dharma, with its mission of helping those who understand the importance of religion but aren’t comfortable with traditional Abrahamic theology.

    The funny thing is, after I was writing the blog daily, I realized that I was living out Thomas’s legacy. Normally, a child lives out the parents’ legacy. When a child dies first, it gets reversed. I had a long career in writing and editing, but always for others and to please others. Thomas would have loved to be able to write in a way that was true to himself and have people read it. I feel as though he stayed with me for awhile and pointed me on that course.

    So this is my mission. To continue to write from my heart. I sold my remaining business January 1 and cleared the deck to make this my life’s work, in his memory. I have a couple of book ideas and various projects, hope to become a teacher in the Dzogchen Buddhist tradition, give more sermons in UU churches, maybe give talks elsewhere. His death strengthened my already-strong spiritual leanings and led me to do my best to spread spiritual wholeness to others.

    1. I can’t express how amazed I am at your strength to have deepened your faith in the face of what I can only imagine to be profound loss. What many take to be traumatic and soul-crushing you took to create a legacy to your son’s spirit. Thank you for that — to me, it shows that death doesn’t have to mean complete annihilation; it can lead to good and to a better appreciation in life beyond the physical….thank you for sharing with me…may your son’s light and God’s grace continue to guide you!!

      1. I have never before given much thought to a literal afterlife, but I do believe that Thomas was with me for awhile after his death, forgave me for me failings as a father, and guided me toward the daily blogging. So I have to share the credit with him. Once in college and once in his work life, he had such severe panic attacks that he could not function. He told the truth both times, to his college and then to his employer, and both times they understood and worked things out for him. That’s also a kind of bravery that I’m emulating.

  3. I’ll add that Thomas’s death came a year or so after my younger son’s recovery from his addiction, which had a spiritual component of his own. Out in the woods of North Carolina, my younger son found his higher power and decided to stay clean. And my experiences with both sons, as well as a life of previous traumatic losses, taught me a lot, spiritually speaking.