For 10 years, I ran from everything—I ran into bottles, razor blades, and people.
I was an escape artist who never really got away. I just kicked my pain down the road until I could find another easy way out. In our active addictions, we play a lot of hide-and-seek with reality—we avoid, we deny, we delay.
Drugs and alcohol were my primary survival tools. They enabled me to avoid dealing with life and the pains of past sexual trauma. I was able to put on this false pretense of happiness in the vacuum of my addiction. When people encountered me, they saw a girl who was having the time of her life. They had no idea that inside, I was suffering deeply, I was dark, and I was slowly dying.
Those who did get close enough (as my friend or in a dating situation) would often see the truth hidden behind the show. They saw the raw, ugly emotional mess I really was when all the feelings of shame, guilt, self-loathing, and hatred came bubbling to the surface, and I was without a drink or drug to quell them all.
I would act out, scream, argue, lie, cheat, and do anything to avoid accountability for any actions that may have caused others harm, and in those moments, without my survival tools, I was exposed, and people usually did not stick around very long.
I was an addict.
I was an alcoholic.
I was a hot mess.
I was also in extreme emotional pain.
There were times when people would attempt to save me (they were few, but some did)—like my father, a counselor, or a boyfriend. They would all try to point out to me that my “survival tools” were, in fact, the things that were destroying me, ending my jobs, causing breakups, and so on.
But when someone is in survival mode and knows no other way of life, trying to tell them their solution is the problem is not going to work. I couldn’t hear them above the rising chaos of emotions threatening me. It’s really easy to look at someone who is in their deep addiction and cast them away. It’s easy to leave them under the guides of “tough love” and walk out.
In fact, in some cases, for many people dealing with addicts they love, it is self-preservation to do so. Boundaries are vital for loved ones of addicts and alcoholics because you cannot save up. You must walk away, cut us off financially, and throw us out of your homes—to protect yourself and others.
Hear this: you cannot save us.
Addiction is an inward battle that only the addict can fully conquer. It can be a lonely quest. But it is possible. There are things you can do and say that can help. I am not a fan of “tough love,” as it creates this false narrative that if you are just cold or cut off from people, that will get them the help they need. We say things like, “Well, they just need to hit rock bottom,” and that absolves us from the problem.
In part, this is true; however, there are also ways we can be kinder, loving, and trauma-informed in our response to those suffering from addiction.
What everyone needs to understand about addiction is this: most addicts are not using because it is fun. We use out of necessity, survival, and because using drugs and alcohol are the only tools that are working for us. We need new tools. We need compassionate accountability. We need trauma-informed, supportive guidance. We need people to look beyond the behavior and ask us to try and identify what happened to us that makes us do what we do—whether it is from our past, literally the current and most recent relapse, or drug and alcohol use.
Instead of shaming someone who relapsed, ask questions, such as:
What are the things that happened right before they made the decision to use?
Was it an overwhelming feeling, such as fear? Shame? Guilt? Loneliness? Bored? Hungry? Angry? Tired?
One way you can be compassionate with someone in your life who is struggling to stay clean and sober is to help them identify their triggers leading up to using, and then providing other tools for coping with those very triggers. Replace the drink and drug with something healthy.
You may never get down to the “why” of that person’s use, but you can guide them toward healthy coping mechanisms. Offer resources that aid in healing, hope, and recovery. You can begin to expand their understanding of what is possible and the reality that there are other ways to deal.
It is not your job to get them clean and sober. If you can step into the hard space of understanding that the person you love who is struggling is most likely in desperate need of compassion, resources, and alternatives, you can make an impact.
Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” When I was living inside the dark vortex of my addiction, I did not know any better. No one looked at me and said things like, “You are obviously in a lot of pain. I am so sorry for whatever happened to you. It wasn’t your fault, and you no longer need to live the way you’re living. There are solutions. There are other ways of dealing with emotions. Let me help you find alternative tools for coping. I am here when you are ready.”
Any one of these statements or a combination would have been something for me to grab ahold of. I am not saying it would have gotten me clean and sober in that moment, but it may have planted the seeds of hope and recovery a lot sooner.
The best way you can offer aid to someone who is suffering is to be that seed planter for them. Plant the seeds of hope, recovery, and alternative coping. Water those concepts whenever it is emotionally safe for you to do so with that person, and then walk away.
You cannot force them to grow—you can only provide an encouraging environment.