(Don’t) Keep Coming Back

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.

© Copyright 2011 by By Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Georgia

    May 11th, 2011 at 4:34 AM

    I think that family members too often have so much guilt in thinking that they are the ones who created this addictive behavior that they have a hard time facing up to that, when really that is not the truth at all.

  • benjamin

    May 11th, 2011 at 2:29 PM

    the thing about family members is that everybody’s life is impacted due to the addiction of this one member.not only do they need to take care of the addict and maybe even support him financially but you may even be judged on the basis of this family member!it is a terrible thing to happen and yes,family members of addicts getting some support is always good.

  • JOAN

    May 11th, 2011 at 8:14 PM

    To all those who feel like they have failed because a loved one is an addict-It’s not your mistake and moreover you do not need to give in to their every demand and come to their rescue all the time. Lay down restrictions and if the loved one does cross the line let the person feel the pinch. This is the way to discipline people who do not listen to straight things!

  • Darren Haber

    May 11th, 2011 at 10:29 PM

    Thanks folks, great comments all!

  • Penny Rayas

    May 12th, 2011 at 12:26 AM

    Clients often tell me that when they go to Alanon meetings they think well my husband, son, wife is not as bad as what those people are talking about. Denial is a big issue, but I found that the same relatives will go to a coda meeting much easier for them. It also helps because the co-addict needs to focus on themeselves. I found motivational interviewing a good techique to help with the ambivilance.

  • Sally

    May 12th, 2011 at 4:42 AM

    Look- these are people who have been so busy trying to save the life of someone that they love for so long that most of them have probably forgotten about trying to take care of themselves. They have allowed their own needs to take second or even third place to those of the addict and they can’t remember anymore why they should even think about caring for someone other than the addict. And that is just one more piece of the addiction puzzle that people tend to overlook. Not just the addict gets hurt- it is the addict and then practically anyone else in his or her sphere of influence.

  • Darren Haber

    May 12th, 2011 at 2:30 PM

    Very well said, Sally. It’s almost as if the addicted person and their loved one’s “self” get intertwined; I see it over and over again, this sense on the “co-addict’s” part that, “I’m okay if I see you’re doing okay, which means I’m okay” — as if the loved one has “permission” to be ok and is doing his/her job if the addict is ok. The addicted person becomes a mirror for the loved one. Very confusing and stressful over time.

    And Penny, are you a therapist? I’m very curious as to why you think Coda might work better than al-Anon. I’ve never heard that before, thanks for posting (both of you).

  • vick

    May 13th, 2011 at 4:44 AM

    Honestly I just think that many people no matter how much they have suffered are afraid of seeking help. What would their lives look like then? They say they are unhappy with the way things are, and maybe that is true, but they are still comfortable. They know what life without treatment looks like, but they have no idea of what a life and a family and an addict in treatment looks like. That has to be scary. It takes guts to get help, I think that all of us know that no matter on which side of the addiction that we stand. We have to give anyone credit for at leats stepping forward and trying to take that first step toward recovery. For most it will not change and happen overnight but for those who are deicated to making a real life change it is good to know that there are numerous 12 step and other related programs available to help them take that journey one step at a time.

  • Darren Haber

    May 13th, 2011 at 7:56 AM

    Thanks Vick, couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • oldtimer

    May 15th, 2011 at 4:22 PM

    My ex husband was an alcoholic and I never considered Al-Anon. I’m not sure why but I think it’s because the whole situation was very secretive. I was the only one who knew he was an alcoholic as he excelled at hiding it. What if I had gone to Al-Anon and met someone I knew there that was in the same situation, living with a secret alcoholic? I would be horrified and scared they would tell a mutual acquaintance they had saw me there. I know it sounds crazy and it’s all supposed to be confidential but I wouldn’t take that chance. His shame wasn’t mine to take on my shoulders of course but I did. I worked in a public service job where everybody knew me. I would have been humiliated if it had become common knowledge.

    Also in small towns, everybody knows too that if you go to a meeting in a certain place at a certain time each week, exactly what that meeting is for. Nothing’s anonymous in a small town. I think that fear would hold people back too. The best Al-Anon meeting would be one you could attend online if you live in a small rural community and are worried about being the subject of gossip/questions/sympathy. I don’t even know if online ones exist but that’s one solution I can think of.

  • ron

    May 15th, 2011 at 5:34 PM

    @Georgia: That’s right. Unless you’re the one forcing them to drink or do drugs, you are not responsible for their addiction. Grownups are big and ugly enough to make their own decisions and if they make a bad one, then that’s just life. They have to deal with the consequences.

  • Darren Haber

    May 16th, 2011 at 8:45 AM

    Dear oldtimer, thank you so much for your thoughtful and honest post. I’m grateful for your honesty and in our wired times, I would imagine an online al-anon meeting wouldn’t be too tough to find. Let me know if you need help doing so. And Ron, thanks to you as well. Good points all. Again, I appreciate the feedback.

  • Anna

    March 15th, 2014 at 6:25 AM

    I think going to a group is just another way of having to take responsibility for someone else’s problems. Codependents already have had to take on the responsibility of a family member for so long and realizing the effects it has had on their own personal life is just another way of taking this responsibility. As if we haven’t taken on enough already. Even more guilt to throw on us. They created this didn’t they?! Most will be referred by their therapist and taking a step towards therapy was a big enough step already. I think therapy is a way to shelter yourself while coming to grips with your problems without coming out to the world and putting a big sign on yourself and saying hey I have a problem; which is what going to a group would mean. Real complete acceptance is hard. Baby steps, baby steps. We’ll get there.

  • Darren Haber MFT

    March 15th, 2014 at 10:50 PM

    Thanks for your comment, Anna!

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