Addiction in a loved one has a way of completely paralyzing family and friends. Otherwise intelligent, loving, and naturally connected people become confused, and previously held thoughts, values, and beliefs can go completely awry along with any relationship and communication skills one once had. Cognition becomes ruled by emotion, and it can be extremely difficult to reorder those behavioral systems which seem to have been caught in a rotating cycle of fear, guilt, shame, blame, anger, and grief that results in a powerful and blinding vortex in the mind of the beholder. This vortex can gain destructive momentum by a simple thought, conversation, visit, or speculation, and it is not easily calmed. It’s a whirlwind; however, that must be stilled. The clarity that is essential for wise decision-making cannot be found amidst the turbulent and blinding nature of a cyclone.
I’ve never been physically caught in anything similar to a tornado, but hey, I’ve seen the Wizard of Oz! I know it can carry houses like the toy homes from the Monopoly game. It’s a deadly, unpredictable, and uncontrollable force, and although our minds often feel the same way, they do not in fact have those same scientific characteristics. We have the ability to subdue the mental storm. It’s not easy, and it seems to fly against every natural instinct, but it is possible. Detachment is a popular concept that is often advised to family and friends in such a crisis mode. The idea itself is not a bad one, but I believe that message has been distorted to become a very unhealthy one.
If you look up the definition of the word, you might understand where the confusion originates. Dictionary.com lists words such as “aloofness, indifference, and unconcern” as synonyms, and unfortunately that is the meaning that many attribute to the concept of detachment in addiction. Another definition is: “lack of emotion or of personal interest.” That’s just inhumane and not based in the reality of a loving relationship. A more accurate and plausible definition of detachment in this context is: “a condition in which something has become separated from something else.” That separation has to occur within ourselves. It’s a separation of our out-of-control emotions from the chaos in the mind. It’s a disconnection from the fear and future based thinking that drives the ferocious spiral. It’s a calming of the storm to see clearly what needs to be done.
It’s not easy. The other day my daughter called to ask me how to help a friend who is actively using right now and potentially in great danger of an overdose. As hard as I tried to detach emotionally, I could not (for the life of me) come up with a rational thought. Fear began swirling in my mind like a dust devil acting completely independent of my intellect and will. My brain scanned from thought to thought, but the darn emotional swirling would not settle. It was like Robot from Lost in Space (God I’m revealing my age here), short-circuiting and blurting out: “WARNING! WARNING!” All I could think and say out loud was, “stay away from him.” Years of reading, analyzing, consulting, and training, and all I could say was, “stay away from him.” I did exactly what I know I should not have done. I reacted from inside the blinding force of the vortex. It took a few moments for me to regain control of my senses, and I was able to then recommend a person whom I thought might be able to help.
None of this is simple, but an understanding of what’s happening and awareness amidst the turmoil is a good start. The rest is practice, patience, and more practice until we can hopefully calm the emotional storm and act reasonably, lovingly, and always in line with our personal values. It’s a tedious but necessary reordering of the behavioral systems stuck in the whirlwind. Never stop trying and keep learning all you can about that which is such a destructive force in your life. Knowledge is pretty powerful too.
Someone asked about resources to learn to tackle this. Here are a few of my favorites:
Debra Jay's book, "No More Letting Go" is a valuable resource. She also has a newer book with a family plan titled: "It Takes a Family." Click HERE for her website.
A more recent book that I recommend is, "Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change."
They utilize a method called CRAFT. You can learn a bit about that here:
And of course there are many support groups which you can easily discover by a quick Internet search.