Anybody with a loved one who is addicted to drugs or alcohol should get familiar with the nifty, if sickeningly psycho-babble, catchphrase ‘detaching with love’. It is one of a frazzle of glitchy little phrases that look and sound like the English language but for the uninitiated, make little sense and shroud the fundamentals of recovery in a mist of mystery.
If your addict or alcoholic is entering treatment for the first time, it seems like you must master these tricky little blighters at lightning speed to just keep some sort of a grip of what’s going on. When using and drinking your loved one talked in actual riddles of insanity and now clean and sober they appear to be doing the exact same thing and it’s a little disturbing when you hear recovery babble spilling forth from the lips of those former liars.
What is love?
Detaching with love is one of the cornerstones of the Al Anon program, the 12 Step offering for the relatives and friends of the addicted and like many aspects of 12 step recovery seems like a total contradiction in terms. Surely if you love something you draw it closer….that’s a natural human reaction, right?
So, in many ways it sounds like a fancy term for giving up on your son, daughter, husband or wife and is a challenging concept to get your head around especially for those living in abject fear of the consequences of this life threatening affliction.
Power and powerlessness
To fully comprehend this term, you must first accept and understand addiction and alcoholism as a chronic and progressive disease. This means that it is never cured and that it gets worse as the addict advances in their narcotic careers. The vampires of obsession and compulsion drives their thinking and literally controls them so they become people that you don’t recognise.
The most important thing to take from this is that if your addict is powerless over their own disease and their actions then you, sure as hell, are. Paradoxically, accepting powerlessness as a concept is actually empowering not just for the addict but also for you.
Fear and control
Family members ride the big dipper of hopelessness, fear and chaos right alongside the addict and straight and sober they are the ones that really feel what is going on as often the addict or alcoholic is fully cloaked and protected by their denial.
Many family members seek to alleviate the consequences that their loved ones are experiencing. They pay the rent, the court fines, lie to children about their parents’ whereabouts and even call in sick on behalf of the absent alcoholic.
This is essentially acting from a place of fear, fear that they might not be ok if forced to face these realities. And fear often precipitates control. Trying to control the uncontrollable is actually pretty insane and one of the ways family get drawn into the craziness of the disease.
Enabling and adapting
Enabling is another succinct term and is applied to these exact face saving, arse saving tactics. Today, in order to soften this up, which seems kind of ridiculous, this is sometimes referred to as ‘adapting’. The world of recovery loves a good term and it’s even more baffling for loved ones when the goal posts get moved.
Essentially it’s about being overprotective in whatever form that takes and it is not helpful for anyone. If you go to an AA or NA meeting you often hear people say ‘the consequences of my using or drinking helped me to get clean’. It follows, that if families and loved ones pickpocket the rock bottom from their addicted people then they help make the road to true gut wrenching desperation longer and more drawn out.
Empowering the addict
Actually, by stepping back, and excepting the powerlessness in the situation, families empower the addict to take responsibility for their lives and their actions. It might not happen straight away and sometimes not at all but when you’ve tried everything else this is a risk you take.
Let the disasters happen. Human beings have to learn from their mistakes and how can anybody learn from anything if they are not feeling the full velocity of the consequences? For a long time the concept of detaching with love got wedged here and merely meant letting the addict or alcoholic take responsibility for their actions but the ripples of this idea go much deeper.
A Different kind of love
The kernel of the rather clinical ‘detaching’ concept is actually love, love in a different light. Love in the place of fear. This is not about scaring the addict or alcoholic into changing, that’s never going to work. It’s about responding with choice rather than reacting from fear.
You can chose to exit the cyclone of addiction, you can step out of the eye of the storm even when the addict can’t and even when those irksome emotional hooks threaten to claw you back.
This is about ceasing to be responsible for others and becoming responsible to them and to yourself. Conveniently, this can actually be applied in any relationship regardless of the addiction factor and is a pretty liberating way to live.
This is an expression of love because what you are saying with your actions is ‘I believe you are going to find a way through this’. Additionally, this is an expression of love towards yourself and other family members.
Shame and guilt
Addicts and alcoholics generally have low self-esteem and don’t actually like themselves very much and even those totally entrenched in denial realise, on some level they are cluster bombing their existence. So every time a family member shoots those words or looks of disapproval and disappointment, they trigger the shame spiral.
Detaching with love means letting go of any expectations that you have about your addict and letting them find their own way without icing the cake in more shame and guilt. These uncomfortable emotions are often the ones which the addict is trying to mask with their drug and alcohol use.
Furthermore, by letting them take responsibility you don’t rob them of the opportunity to build their own self esteem by successfully tackling a problem and you don’t unwittingly become a scape goat if the ‘fix it’ you provide goes wrong.
Many rehabs run family programs which help to guide people through the minefield of recovery terms because it’s not just about learning what they mean it’s also about practicing them and applying them to your relationships. Often as not this means approaching life in a very different way for everyone concerned.