If your loved one is struggling with substance abuse, their addiction can be just as detrimental to you as it is to them.
Working through recovery can often be challenging; naturally, your loved one’s presence in your life will create challenges for you, too. Some of the symptoms of addiction, like neglecting responsibilities, developing a sensitive temper, and keeping secrets will clearly affect more than just the person dealing with the substance abuse (NCADD).
But you can also be affected by your loved one’s addiction in a more indirect but just as powerful way. When you love someone, it can be extremely difficult to separate yourself from their pain, obstacles and bad habits: in other words, their addiction. Collateral damage is defined as “any damage incidental to an activity,” and I like to think of collateral stress as incidental damage when taking care of your loved one. This natural tendency to take on your loved one’s burdens is what makes setting boundaries necessary in the recovery process.
Not only can boundaries create a buffer between yourself and collateral stress, but they can also assist you in supporting your loved one’s recovery. An article from Psychology Today by Carole Bennett explains that boundaries “are an emotional line. If there is no follow through on ramifications, your intentions are quickly dismissed as frivolous, your credibility is shot and your word is like quicksand.” Boundaries can give you a bit of objectivity in your role as an advocator and reinforcer for your loved one’s sobriety, before that role is called into action. Additionally, setting up boundaries can keep you emotionally healthy, which must be a priority in order for you to be helpful.
So, what would these “boundaries” be? How would you set them up?
Similar to types of addiction treatment, there is no single boundary that is universally effective. Boundaries are specific to each situation, relationship, history of substance abuse, and recovery process. Think of how your loved one’s addiction is affecting you, look at some of the example boundaries, and see what comes to mind when picturing your personal experience.
In regards to the addiction symptoms that directly affect everyone involved, there is a solution that is just as direct. Many addiction treatment centers have opportunities like the Aviary’s Family Wellness Program, which are intended specifically for people who have loved ones in recovery. The therapists at these programs can help you come up with and stick to the boundaries. This type of program aims to work with clients and their loved ones to create an environment that promotes recovery and healing for the loved ones; one of the ways that this environment can be fostered is by setting up boundaries.
Three examples of boundaries in regards to addiction symptoms:
- We plan to only discuss recovery goals and any corresponding rules when in a family wellness program or therapy appointment or when a trained professional is present.
- We agree to be honest with each other about how we are feeling, especially in relationship to the substance abuse.
- We will try to be aware of what we’ve done in the past that has hurt the other (especially when we didn’t realize we were causing hurt).
In regards to the collateral stress, the solutions are less direct and, for some people, might be more difficult. The essential boundary: making a conscious effort to “detach” yourself from your loved one’s addiction. This could be difficult for many reasons: you care about them so you don’t want them to carry the burden by themselves, you feel responsible for them, or maybe you’ve been through a similar experience so you can strongly empathize. Regardless of why this might be difficult, the need for a boundary remains: you cannot solve their addiction or “fix” them.
Three examples of boundaries in regards to collateral stress:
- My self-worth is not related to my loved one’s addiction or recovery process.
- My loved one’s recovery process is their own journey; I can be present and support them, but I cannot take this journey for them.
- How I feel about my loved one is not the same as how I feel about their substance abuse.
The final component to boundaries is communication between yourself and your loved one. In order to set up boundaries, you have to first talk about and agree upon them. It’s critical to have these boundaries to rely on and refer back to when times get tense or complicated; it can make it easier to acknowledge when your loved one’s substance abuse is negatively influencing you, and when your response is enabling or ineffective.
You need to set boundaries to protect yourself from addiction’s collateral damage and to effectively support your loved one. Detaching yourself is not selfish; look at it through the perspective of helping your loved one. You cannot hold them accountable to the skills they learn in treatment if you yourself are not coping with the stress in healthy ways. You cannot support them during their recovery if you are burnt out from carrying their burdens as your own. Their path to recovery is not your place; it is a goal impossible for you to achieve and your attachment can even deter their progress. You can walk beside, in front of, or behind them on this path: you cannot carry them.