If you’ve ever loved an alcoholic or addict, I bet you know that desperate desire to help and heal and fix them. You’d give your left kidney, the marrow in your bone, the air currently residing in your lungs at this exact moment – if that would do the trick and make them better.
Maybe you’ve given many things to them already – like money and time and chance after chance after chance. Maybe you’ve given them a great amount of control in your life and now you’re just along for the ride.
All in the hopes that the person will get better, stop using, survive long enough to wake up and realize what they’re doing to themselves – not to mention you and maybe your family.
But none of that giving really matters in recovery. In fact, giving like that can end up making the addiction worse. So I want to call your bluff. I say there’s one thing that you may not be willing to give the addict you love even if it’s the one thing that could save their life.
Want to know what it is?
It’s a shot to win or fail on their own terms. In other words, it’s their dignity.
When a person suffers from an addiction, you might want to treat them like they’re fragile – like they’re completely incapable; a malfunctioning robot who needs to be reprogrammed and you’re just the person to do it. But the person you love isn’t robotic – they’re human. And stripping them of their dignity isn’t going to do anything but make both of you feel worse in the long run.
Addicts need to be allowed the dignity to make their own decisions and to fully experience the consequences of those decisions without you orchestrating anything. They need to be seen as an individual who has what it takes to make a better choice. Addicts don’t need a referee blowing the whistle in their face, always telling them they’re wrong, and kicking them out of their own game! What they need is a cheerleader on the sidelines saying “You can play this however you want but I won’t stop believing in your ability to win!”
Addicts really don’t need to be beaten down anymore than they already have been beaten down. What they need is someone to say: “Yeah, I see you in this shitty situation. I see you down there at rock bottom. But you know what? I see strength in you and I know you can figure this out.” And then they need to be allowed to do exactly that. I’m not saying you can’t ever be helpful when supporting the recovery process and if you are specifically asked for your help. All I’m saying is that addicts don’t need to be rescued in this dramatic, do-it-all for them scenario. They need to come to the point where they realize that, with the help of a Higher Power, they have it in themselves to do better.
Last week, I told you about my Dad. How I’d set up a plan for “keeping my side of the street clean” in our relationship. It was a formula to follow about when and how often to reach out to him and say hello. I told you that I fully expected to go on following that plan until the heroin killed him.
But my Dad went for the plot twist at that point and did something really out there: He returned my call. Hear me out: I had left a voicemail – like I did if I wasn’t able to get him on the phone – and my dad returned my call a week or so later. I was completely dumbfounded. He called “to say hello,” he said. And he didn’t ask for anything else except a little conversation.
This happened a few more times – my Dad calling me. And he answered his phone a couple times when I called too. And, as we spent some time on the phone together, he started saying things to me. Like how much he wanted to get clean and sober. And how he wanted to find a way to help other addicts. He said he’d like to get to know me and my daughters. He even said it’d be nice to earn his GED all these years later. He talked about the repulsiveness of addiction and he talked about his last overdose – how he didn’t want them to wake him up. He cried when he told me that people looked at him like he wasn’t even human anymore.
I believe with all of my heart that my Dad started calling and opening up because he knew I wasn’t going to attack him. I had already made my amends to him for being controlling. When he said “I’d like to get my GED,” I told him I believed he could do it. My dad came to realize that I wasn’t going to flip out on him or remind him of every single wrong he had ever done in my opinion. I was going to treat him with the dignity that any person deserves to make their choices and live their life.
After a couple months of talking like this, my Dad called to tell me the unimaginable news: he had organized – all by himself – to go through detox and get transferred to a 30-day rehabilitation center a few hours away. And what was my response? “That’s awesome, Dad. I’m so happy for you. I knew you could do it.”
I received one letter from my Dad while he was in that rehab. One letter that wasn’t really a letter at all but a handwritten copy of a poem:
I broke down and cried real hard when I opened that envelope. I mean, the poem’s powerful enough in itself. But my Dad is a self-proclaimed “Tree Man” and cutting down trees has always been his on-again, off-again business. A business that rose and fell in an indirect relationship with the severity of his addiction. So seeing my Dad find a way to reach out using tree symbolism was like hearing him speak his own language – it made it that much more amazing. Of course, the irony of my dad speaking about deep roots when his job for years had been to chop down and uproot trees wasn’t lost on me either.
This all sounds simple but I want to say it’s really not. I want to say that there aren’t any guarantees. I’m not saying that if you do this, the person you love will seek recovery. I’m not saying “give them their dignity and they’ll surely beat this thing.” Because that’s not how it works. My Dad did complete his detox. He did complete his 30-days at the rehabilitation center. And he stayed clean and sober for almost 2 years. But he isn’t clean and sober now. And, one day, I’ll talk about that transition too – because I’m trying to do what he wanted and help people affected by addiction. I’m guessing what I’m trying to say is this: you can make the choice to change how you see and respond to the person you love – to give them their dignity – and they still may not choose help for themselves. But giving them their dignity sure gives them a hell of a better shot at recovery than denying it from them. And everything else that goes along with it? The expectations, the worry, the wondering about what will happen to them and how this will all work? All that has to be given up to a Higher Power – because that’s all you can do.❤️
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