The Other Side of Addiction
We hear and read about statistics of overdose deaths, the effects alcohol and drugs may have on the brain and body, police blotters outlining arrests for possession or DUI’s but we don’t hear about the “other side” of addiction too much. The side where families, spouses, or friends helplessly watch their loved ones spiral into addiction and the lifestyle that it entails. In fact, I find it to be a topic that most avoid to ever bring up.
What is it like to silently suffer in pain and heartache in this way? This kind of pain appears to be never ending, a roller coaster going up and down with no definite time of when it will actually stop. To go even further, what does it mean if the roller coaster were to stop? Death? Sobriety? Although I initially addressed addiction as a whole, I’m going to elaborate further on a specific drug that has been destructive in many ways to my life as a non-addict: heroin.
The United States in particular is in the middle of an epidemic. An epidemic that has traveled from urban areas into the suburbs and has increased in accessibility and affordability. Each year, statistics rise in overdose deaths and it’s likely that if you’re reading this you might know at least one person who has passed away from this epidemic.
Since 2013, I have been to more funerals for individuals that have passed away under 30 years old than I feel comfortable admitting. Each wake and funeral more painful than the last as they continue to trigger the familiar feelings of loss and anguish. Many of these individuals had promising futures at one point. They were educated, they had jobs, supportive families and friends. A slew of bad decisions would alter their lives forever and alter the lives of those around them as well.
The pain ricochets inside of my chest when I’ve watched parents sob at the funerals of their sons or daughters and when a child calls out for their parent who recently passed, not yet having grasped the concept of death — that this person isn’t coming back. When I think of my own relationships with these individuals such as the memories and childhood experiences I’ve shared with them, I feel the crack in my heart expand even more.
I’ve been on the other side, loving an addict as they tirelessly fight and love their addiction day after day. Having to forgo my own sleep because their moving about the house at odd hours wakes me or when they actually are able to sleep next to me, making sure that they’re still breathing. Time appears to drag for eternity when you’re waiting for a phone call from them telling you that they’re home for the night, which means they’re not on the streets… or when their call doesn’t come, the silence is deafening. Then you’re reminded of what and how you’re living and it becomes ridiculous, up and down — like the roller coaster.
There is a darkness that comes with addiction. There is jail, disease, infection, prostitution and violence. This is the dark world that hardly ever gets acknowledged outside of therapeutic settings because it gets judged harshly. As a parent, you might feel that others judge you in a way that their behavior is a reflection of your parenting. As a friend or spouse, you might even get judged for staying, riding this roller coaster. Or maybe you don’t want to relive the pain and disappointment of having to tell your story to only get a frozen facial expression and an “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say”. So you don’t reach out, you remain silent. You might withdraw from others or run the risk of spewing out what you’re going through with tears in your eyes. Maybe you don’t want to feel like a burden even though THIS burden is weighing heavy as you carry it every day. But the reality of it is, that you feel helpless and one “wrong” move might mean everything crashing down or death.
What happened to me is that I lost my sense of power. Just like an addict is enslaved to the drug, I became enslaved to my fears. Just like drug addiction doesn’t discriminate, neither does fear. I was a therapist going through this and managed to split my home from my work life for a period of time, but both became so draining and finally took a toll on me. I was terrified and constantly running the “worst case scenarios” in my head. As a therapist, you would think I should have known what to do here, but like so many I felt helpless for a long time riding the roller coaster. Home didn’t feel like home. Heroin had left the streets and was in my home.
After awhile, I sought my own therapy for the first time in my life. I found an amazing therapist who held a space for me to express myself and problem solve my way through all that I was going through. I had many moments of clarity and made a series of life changing decisions to leave where I was and the people I was surrounded with. It was difficult, it was painful, but it was worth it. Ultimately, I had found my voice and a space where I felt heard regardless if it was with one person then— that would later grow.
Suffering in silence shouldn’t be the only option. Praying as hard as you can for someone’s safety and well being is one thing, but when you do that over your own then it becomes detrimental. Support is out there and it may take awhile to find the right place, the right people, or even the right time. Learn to recognize the places where you feel heard, reclaim your voice and power to take care of yourself. Recognize your needs and what you are in control of. Understand your limits and set your boundaries. This entails extensive processing as well as problem solving and is unique to the family, friend or spouse.
The most important aspect to remember through all of this is that support comes in many forms. When I had felt “stuck” with my spouse struggling through their addiction, home didn’t feel supportive, most of my friends had made themselves scarce, and it didn’t feel like anyone else would understand. The support systems that I had built over the years were crumbling. Ultimately, I had felt shunned and isolated during moments of need. When I had found that space, I was able to take a step back and reevaluate my decisions with a clear mind.
No matter where you are on this journey as a bystander, there is real pain. There is nothing easy about watching your loved one struggle through addiction or coping with their passing. However, finding a space where you feel supported, uplifted and understood is crucial to healing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a therapist, a support group, or another supportive presence that can offer you that chance to express yourself. A space where you can cry and let out everything bottled up in your heart. A space that can remind you of who you are again. A space where you don’t feel alone.