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Writer-s-Bloc

Loving a struggling addict

A trauma informed perspective

By Ben Goerner

Listening to your loved ones and helping them hear that you hear, how they’re feeling and what they’re saying is likely the simplest and most effective way to practise trauma-informed communication.

Remember that always. Also remember, that there is no proper way to say things that fit everyone.

Loving someone struggling with mental health disorders such as substance dependence disorder is one of the hardest things anyone can experience.

They are most likely struggling with more than one mental health disorder and much more likely to have experienced some form of trauma early in life, which can continue as they struggle through the seemingly poor decisions and consequences of those decisions.

The person you love who is struggling with addiction is grappling with the daily gruesome internal fight not to use. Most often, the need to self-medicate, numb the pain of failures or of horrors, wins.

After your loved one sincerely promises, again, to remain abstinent, all of this stands in the way of loving the person the way you would like to.

Then, your loved one fights with the embarrassment, shame, lack of confidence and trust in themselves. They battle themselves because they know they’ve hurt you. Even though they love you.

The person you love is likely always in a state of depression and anxiety at the same time. That is why people, suffering in addiction, use drugs/alcohol.

It is not meant to hurt you even though it does. In addiction, using substances is meant to ease their pain and just that, but at any cost. And you are grievously hurt because of it.

Your loved one will do anything to medicate. Because they can’t imagine not doing that. There is no life or love beyond their next hit. So they lie, steal and manipulate to desperately get what they need.

And it becomes harder to love them. You are hurt and angry. You cannot trust.

But love is the answer and I’m not trying to be cliché or glib. Most people dependent on drugs and alcohol and suffer from the characteristics of addiction, have experienced, and continue to experience trauma.

We know that addictive behaviours are subject to triggers; so is trauma.

When a person begins to use substances to numb out, they also develop and program triggers into their psyche and into their nervous system, especially the brain.

The addiction essentially becomes uncontrollable and unpredictable. This usually occurs with little to no awareness. The same occurs with trauma.

The person usually is not aware what triggers their overwhelming anxiety and the desperate need not to feel; at least not until they have started to explore this.

We all know how hard it is just to start looking at any of the bad or horrible things that have happened to us. That is how hard it is to also look at the reasons a person becomes addicted.

Here is one major reason that people need to be "ready" to move forward with help such as detox or any other kind of treatment. It's like standing on the highest diving board, or cliff, and making that decision and jumping into the water below.

A word, a movement, a concept, a photo of an abuser could all be triggers to re-traumatize your loved one. Yelling, lecturing, blaming can also lead to this.

So now what? Everything you do could potentially set your loved one into a tailspin if you’re not careful.

When you listen, no matter how scared or pissed off you are, and let your loved one know that you’ve heard their story, their feelings, etc., you have a much better chance of moving through anything traumatic with your loved one.

That doesn’t mean you don’t set boundaries. It doesn’t mean you don’t let them know how you feel. Of course, you do, after you’ve acknowledged that you’ve heard what they feel.

You have a much better chance of working on things together when you practise compassion and empathy.

This is the most natural way to be trauma informed with your loved one.

So yes, loving someone who is suffering from the horrendous symptoms of addiction is complex and one of the hardest things you will do in trying to support them.

Compassion will help you feel calm and focused in dealing with them.

Compassion opens the door to empathy.

Empathy will help you understand the issues and create a safe space for your loved one to let you know what they need, what works, what doesn’t work, and to avoid re-traumatizing them.

And most of all, they will feel OK to let you know that they really do love you too, because they trust you to listen. 

Ben Goerner is a retired substance use counsellor with 31 years in the field. He is also a singer songwriter and blogger, often writing about his experiences with addiction. You can read more at bensharmonics.com

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Welcome to Writer’s Bloc, an opinion column for guest writers to share their experiences and viewpoints with our readers.

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