What's Love Got to Do With It?

I speak frequently with a woman named Jane who has been married to an alcoholic for close to 40 years.  A resilient sufferer, she just left her husband after all of those years of his on-again, off-again drinking and several attempts at rehab and recovery.  It’s been literally a lifetime of pain, chaos, and tragedy.  Her husband is still drinking heavily, taking prescription pills, and in the midst of his intoxication, he calls and emails obscenities at Jane which make her feel sad and guilty.  Jane is concerned that she lacks compassion, and she still believes the madness that her husband spews out at her in his drunken rages.  Things like:  it’s all her fault; look what she’s done to the family; his drinking is not an issue — Jane is the issue.  On and on it goes, often daily, and Jane believes it.  Surely she has done something wrong — her husband seems so certain of it.  If she just tried a little harder or loved a little more, her husband would stop drinking, and their marriage would be saved.  This is just a sliver of the picture of the family disease of addiction.

Jane called last week after reading an especially disturbing email from her husband which made her feel sad and caused her to relive the grief and loss of their marriage.  She said:  “I simply cannot believe that he cares more about drinking than about me and our marriage.”  This is a conversation we’ve had before, and Jane  has not yet learned to separate the person from the disease.  It’s not easy.  They don’t say that it’s “cunning, baffling, and powerful” for nothing.  It is.  It takes hard work and education to understand this thing and our reactions to it, but it’s so important to do the work to come to an understanding.  It’s important for peace of mind.  It’s important for physical health.  It’s a matter of life and death.

I explained to Jane that the situation with her husband is not a matter of caring.  It has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with love or caring.  Her husband’s brain is being held hostage in a sense, and in his mind he does not have a problem.  That doesn’t mean that it’s true — it’s simply how his brain has been tricked by the alcohol and drugs.  When her husband drinks or takes drugs, one of the oldest parts of the brain (the limbic system) is very pleased.  This is the part of the brain that regulates such primitive behaviors as hunger, sex, pleasure, the fight/flight response, etc.  

Without getting into specifics of neuroscience (which I am hardly qualified to discuss), it is important to understand that an addicted person’s brain is telling him that he is doing something good when he drinks or uses.  The limbic system is responding “yes, yes!!”  This is what is needed!!  The very brain that would normally tell him that he is hurting the people around him and himself, is first and foremost responding to what it believes is good for survival.  This is an automatic, unconscious activity.  We eat when we’re hungry.  We drink water when we’re thirsty.  We don’t analyze this, we simply know it is what we need to do.  If someone told us our eating was a problem, there is no way we would listen to him.  We have to eat — our brain protects us and will not let us think otherwise. The person suffering from addiction is responding in much the same way.  He has absolutely no idea that there is a problem.  This is sometimes referred to as denial.  

I explained all that to Jane and left her with this:  IT’S A BRAIN THING!!!  IT’S A BRAIN THING!!!  IT’S A BRAIN THING!!!!  Did you get that?  IT’S A BRAIN THING!!!  It has absolutely nothing to do with caring, with love, with you or anyone else.  It’s not a conscious, premeditated, hurtful thing.  The addicted person  needs to be freed from captivity, and until you get your own head on straight you will simply be part of the problem and not part of the solution.