The Other Side of the Coin
“The black sheep” was my self-labeled title that I wore with pride through my teens and early twenties. Because my struggle with addiction and trips to rehab began in early puberty and lasted through all of high school and into college, I grew comfortable in my role as the problem child in the family. I know the feelings of shame and remorse that accompany active addiction all too well. I recall the genuine desire to change but inability to do so. I remember feeling as though I was a disappointment to my family and thinking that perhaps they would be better off without me.
No matter how badly I wanted to, I just couldn’t seem to stop using and drinking which always resulted in poor decisions, trouble, and more disappointment.
When I entered into recovery, I learned that addiction is a brain disorder. I learned that my thoughts had been hijacked and I was hostage to my own compulsions. I hadn’t been using and hurting my family because I didn’t care or because I was a morally bad person. I did it because I was very sick and in need of help. Understanding this and seeking help and mentorship helped me make changes to my life so I could sustain my own recovery. It helped me to speak with family members of those who were still suffering in their addiction and help introduce some space for empathy and compassion.
But all of my lived experience didn’t inoculate me from the effects of a loved one’s struggle with addiction. All of my logical knowledge flew out of the window when I was confronted with the heartache and emotional torture of the seeing a loved one self-destruct along with the life I thought we would live together.
In full disclosure and for the sake of authenticity, I was not without blame when our relationship ended. I was in addictive addiction, too, at times in our relationship and during our initial separation. But for the sake of this blog, I want to reflect on my experience of being confronted with a new perspective and experience. I had shifted from being the black sheep to becoming the family member, from being the qualifier to becoming the enabler, and from being the tornado to becoming the baffled onlooker.
I found myself experiencing all of these emotions that I somehow thought I would be excluded from because of my knowledge and understanding of addiction. Oh, how naive I was! I was angry and I was hurt. I found myself becoming emotionally jarred by his actions and behaviors. They affected me as though they were personal attacks.
I was shaken when I heard these phrases coming out of my mouth: “Why can’t he just get it? I’m doing it– why won’t he?”, “I don’t understand why losing our family, his son, isn’t enough to make him change!”, and “Sometimes I wish he would just disappear– that would be easier than all this in-and-out of recovery, getting my hopes up!”
It hurts my heart that I felt and said these things. They were the very things that I knew my family had said about me. They were even things that were said directly to me and I can recall the anguish, guilt, and shame they caused inside. But in the heat of the moment, in the middle of the storm, logic and knowledge eluded me and I took his addiction personally. I lost the ability to recall that recovery is a process and each person’s recovery is unique. My hurt feelings had overrun my ability for compassion and understanding. At moments, I lost the ability to “love the person, but hate the disease”.
I now had first-hand experience of what it was like to have hope in someone’s recovery efforts only to see them fall back into the same patterns and bring it all crashing down on their heads. I’ve experienced the fear for their safety when they are out and the fear of the return to use when they are stopped.
These experiences and the gentle encouragements from friends led me to my second and most powerful realization: the need for me to further my own care. I found this extremely frustrating! I fought the suggestion from others to attend a peer support meeting for families and loved ones. I fumed– why should I have to do more work when he is the one acting out!?
I was gently reminded that I would get more relief if I got out of his and stayed inside of my own hula-hoop. I had to stop trying to control him and instead focus on where I did have control- myself. It was Serenity Prayer Wisdom 101. But again, amidst the emotions I had lost this knowledge.
So, I begrudgingly began attending the other meetings and met family members who felt just as I did. I even met other people who also were in recovery for their own substance use disorder. The group and mentors helped me learn how to set boundaries, how to keep the focus on myself, and how to practice self-care. Just as I had to be shown how to stay abstinent no matter what life dealt me; I had to learn how to stay sane no matter what was happening in his life. I needed to witness how to live the philosophy of “pain may not be an option, but suffering is.”
If you are struggling with an addiction or think you use may have an issue, I encourage you reach out for help. You are not alone. And, if you are concerned about a loved one and feel their behavior is negatively impacting your life, I encourage you to reach out for help. You are not alone. After all, this is a family disease. No one suffers the effects of addiction in a vacuum and in my experience, you won’t experience recovery that way either.
If you would like to share your story with Heroes in Recovery, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. By sharing your story, you inspire others to break the stigma associated with substance use and mental health issues.