Many of the partners or loved ones (POLOs) of those struggling with addiction often seem reluctant to get help for themselves. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m hoping this article provides some answers.
These beleaguered folks are often fixated on the behavior of the loved one who struggles with drugs or alcohol (or other compulsions). Of course, it’s hard not to fixate on rampantly destructive behaviors. It often seems as though families where addiction is present are always struggling to either avoid or deal with addiction’s collateral damage (financial, emotional, professional, etc). I’m coming to the conclusion that because the behaviors surrounding addiction are so darkly magnetic, a constant pull on the family’s attention, it may be hard to understand why focusing on oneself is important.
I praise and encourage those who come to my therapy office to seek help, since admitting to a stranger (even if that stranger is a mental health provider) that one cannot solve a problem without help is itself demoralizing. Never mind that addiction is one of the most difficult maladies to treat, complex and subtle; for any person in our individualized, “do it yourself” society, saying “I can’t figure this out” often feels like an admission of weakness or incompetence. Especially if the problem involves a family member; most clients come to me with an inner critic shouting, “Why can’t you get a handle on this?” or “Why are you putting up with this?” or “You must be a really crappy parent/partner to warrant such mistreatment.” Very often, the feeling is that the POLO has themselves done something wrong, even if the possibly addicted person appears remorseful or contrite after yet another “incident”. It’s almost as if addiction’s sinister vortex draws out the dark underside of all of those who live in its wake: a vexing and demoralizing experience.
The part that stumps me, however, is why these folks are reluctant to try al-Anon. It was suggested to me that my recommending al-Anon may be akin to saying, “I as your therapist can’t really help you, you need to get help elsewhere.” When I therefore do make the suggestion, I am careful to emphasize that such support is to be in addition to and not instead of my therapeutic assistance. Attending meetings and sharing with others one’s struggles can be a wonderful counterpart to individual therapy – and, incidentally, is good role modeling for the struggling loved one, who may benefit from attending meetings themselves.
Still, reluctance prevails. A person will attend meetings for a brief period and then stop. I will (gently) encourage them to return, but usually they prefer not to. This, of course, is not at all “bad” or “wrong”. Therapy in itself is amazingly effective, over time, though it often takes longer without the adjunct of group support. There just seems to be something healing about sitting with others who understand your problem and accept and support you unconditionally, in spite of all those feelings of not being good enough or smart enough, etc.
I’d be very interested to hear from you about why you think this is. I’m not at all trying to blame anyone here. Perhaps it’s a reflection of al-Anon itself. I know that some meetings are more attractive than others, depending on the group, the area/city, the strength of the program, and so on. I understand that 12-step is not for everyone. I know that if seeing an individual therapist is awkward, facing a roomful of strangers to discuss a shameful, agonizing problem is even more so. Sometimes meetings are far and few between, depending on where you live. And some seem to focus more on the problem than the solution, leading to a generally grim, even depressing “vibe”. Still, I’m trying to get a handle on what might help those clients integrate into a process that has proven very helpful and supportive for those who take to it, and what suggestions I might make to those clients brave enough to give it a shot.
In two weeks I’ll provide some of my own reflections on this question, but in the meantime I welcome all thoughts, experiences and impressions. And I want to once again thank those of you who take the time and trouble to read these posts. I appreciate it quite a bit, and find inspiration in your feedback.
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