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How to Talk to Someone Who Loves a Person With an Addiction

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Here we are, husband and wife, holding hands on the beach. Our two dogs run ahead of us, their black coats blending with the gray-blue ocean. The setting sun casts a golden glow along the wet sand where we walk. Here we are safe, happy.

What you may not notice is the fear in my eyes. What you can’t hear is the little shake in my husband’s voice, as he tries to hide the truth beneath witty jokes. We are grateful to be together. We are grateful for this beach and our carefree pups, but we are also gripped by an awareness we could be pulled away from one another at any moment. That everything we know could be lost.

My husband is recovering from a drug addiction. We’ve been married for six months, together four years. I knew he had an addiction from the start, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t realize there’s no such thing as an “ex-addict,” as he once called himself. I didn’t know what his therapist meant when she said addiction is a “family disease.” By the time I finally understood the ugly truth, I’d fallen in love. Not with the disease, but with this funny, intelligent, sweet person being dragged across hot pavement by his demons.

I have been through hell with my husband. I have shaken hands with his demons, while tears streamed down my face. I have also walked along the beach with him. I’ve seen him pick up white chip after white chip, and I’m inspired by his determination to keep fighting for sobriety. Looking back on the past four years, there are things I would change, but I would still want to be with him. I have grown. I’ve gained a level of compassion and humility I didn’t realize was possible. I’ve experienced divine grace. Despite everything, somehow we are still in love.

At the same time, the innocence I’ve lost along the way has brought with it a quiet pain. The kind of pain that hunkers down in the bones, wraps around the soul and constricts until the soul turns black. It’s a pain that’s hard to recognize when you look at me. I hide it well because I’m afraid to be vulnerable, afraid to convey to others what it’s really like to live with an addict (recovering or otherwise). I’m afraid they won’t understand. That they’ll reject me. That they’ll convince me I must leave him. That they will play God in my life.

So I write this not for the person addicted or the people who love that person. They already know that life and don’t need me to tell them about it, but this is for everyone else. The friends and family who want to be supportive but may not know how. The people who, perhaps in the midst of their own personal struggles, only see a husband and wife holding hands on the beach.

Here’s how to respond to someone who loves a person with an addiction:

1. Listen.

This is the most helpful thing you can do when she opens up to you. The stories she tells you might be frightening. You might feel the urge to interrupt, to give her some kind of direction. You might start spouting clichés like, “I’ll pray for you,” or “Once an addict, always an addict.” Please don’t. Just let her talk. More than anything she’s afraid of your judgement. So just listen.

2. If she happens to ask you for advice, try not to let your emotions drive your response.

Emotional blubbering is common in these circumstances. Unless she is in a violent situation, it’s helpful to simply tell her to focus on herself, to take care of herself. Tell her you love her and you’re there for her.

3. At the same time, set your boundaries.

When she first opens up, an entire ocean may flow out of her, sharks and all. Perhaps the gory details are too much. You may not want to hear how she found him pale-faced on the bathroom floor surrounded by tiny, opened packets and a used needle. You may not have room for her to stay the night at your apartment. That’s OK. Be clear on how far you’re able to go.

4. When she says she loves him, believe her.

Don’t minimize that love into lust, craziness or a fear of letting go. Maybe she is afraid to let him go, but she also loves him. This is OK too.

5. Avoid judging the person who has an addiction.

This will be hard. You may want to condemn him. You may want to shake his brains out for hurting her, but this kind of judgment will only hurt her more. Remember she loves him. Remember he is hurting too.

6. Learn everything you can about addiction.

Not only will this help you better understand her life, but it may be useful to your own life too. You may know someone else who struggles with an addiction. The more we learn, the more we can erase the stigma that tells us people with addiction are just bad people with sh*ty willpower.

7. It’s OK to be afraid for her.

It’s OK to be afraid of addiction. After all, he could end up doing horrible things because of his disease. He could die. She could lose everything and because addiction has a sneaky way of touching everyone it comes into contact with, not just the person addicted, you could lose a little something too. It’s OK to be frightened, but know there is also hope.

My husband relapsed three months ago, after almost a year of sobriety. It was during that year when I felt safe enough to marry him. I knew relapse would always be a possibility, but I was devastated when it happened so soon after our wedding, terrified at what I’d gotten myself into. He, too, was scared and upset.

At least for today, we have chosen hope. He got sober again, and I took some steps to refocus my energy on my own healing. Because if, as we walk on the beach toward the sunset, I turn and look at the scarcity of light behind us or if I look out into the wild sea, I am guaranteed to lose my grasp on hope. I will become paralyzed with fear.

So when she finally lets you see her cry, when she has her eyes set on the darkness all around, remind her the sand is soft beneath her feet and the sun’s reflection is golden where she walks.

Originally published: July 13, 2016
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