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Lesson Seven: Ending The Cycle of Addiction

In Lesson Seven, we delve deeper into addressing what’s needed to support the healing of the person struggling with addiction.  We also look at the family and loved ones in that person’s life, and their roles.  We revisit at family relationships and codependency, and learn the practices that help heal the addicted brain. We also learn longer-term steps to heal the harm that has come about (on all sides) as a result of the addiction and the underlying trauma that caused it.

We’ve previously talked about codependency, which is essentially an addiction to the addicted, where the co-dependent adopts responsibility for the addict. This is often one of the biggest challenges to overcome. It requires that the family and loved ones acknowledge their own wounds and challenges. It also requires that both sides acknowledge how their actions, behaviors, and beliefs have affected the other.

From Gabor’s perspective, all addiction issues (and all codependency) arise from trauma. Not necessarily big-T trauma (abuse, violence, etc), but often the multiple small traumas of not getting our needs met as infants and young children. As we’ve previously seen, when our needs aren’t met, we are hard wired to adapt our behaviors in order to survive. In many cases, the adaptations work in the short term, but are problematic in the long term.

For the individual struggling with addictions (and, often for family members or loved ones as well), not only were their basic needs not met, but often, s/he never had the chance to develop many of the basic skills in things like communication, boundaries or emotion management. All of this contributes to the codependent interactions.  

Below, we discuss how codependency plays out for the individual dealing with addiction, and, separately, for the family members or loved ones interacting with the individual.

For the family/loved one: 

Often, the biggest challenge for those of us who are family members of someone struggling is recognizing that the other person’s behavior is not the problem. It is our relationship with the other person, our expectations, and unmet needs that are causing our discomfort.  This often manifests as our trying to take control of the situation by controlling the other person’s actions or behaviors.

But the truth is, we can’t control them. They are independent people, and they can (and will) do what they want to do.  We can try to convince them to do what we want for them.  And “what we want” might, objectively, even be the best for them. But we won’t succeed unless and until it is what theywant.  At best, we can threaten, beg, coerce, or take away things that are important to them. That might make them do what we want in the short term. It nearly always builds resentment and anger in them. Sometimes, our loved ones will conform, at least for a while, to make us happy. Other times, they rebel. But it is never a healthy circumstance.  It’s rarely, if ever, effective in the long term.

This is challenging, because we convince ourselves that we simply cannot let our loved one continue down this path. They are important to us! We have to take care of them!  Unfortunately, that perspective nearly always alienates the other person. It may actually discourage them from getting help. When we set up (to them) unrealistic expectations, we make their shame worse.  They might want to please us, but are afraid they will fail. Or, alternatively, they simply withdraw. When this happens it increases their shame and anger, and takes away the connection they so desperately need to heal. Trying to fix the other person without working on our own codependency is hopeless.

Doing our own codependent work isn’t easy. We’ll need to explore patterns and beliefs and attachments we’ve had for decades.  We have to look at ourselves, and be willing to change the way we interact with our loved ones. However, the benefits are enormous. Once we begin to practice this new way of thinking, feeling and interacting, it changes how we feel, and our loved one also can begin to notice change as well. The healing that can happen is powerful for all involved.

Patience is crucial. Our loved ones will fall short. They’ll make mistakes. They may relapse. They’ll revert to old behaviors and make us angry. And as we do our own work, we’ll realize that what we feel is about us,not them. Our loved ones can’t make us feel any emotion. They can behave in a way that isn’t acceptable to us. But what we do with that – what emotion we attach to that experience – is entirely up to us.  We can learn to let go of the idea that anyone other than ourselves controls what we feel.

We will make mistakes, too. We’ll say things we don’t want to say, act out old patterns, find ourselves overly attached to the words or behaviors of our loved ones. We may upset or alienate our loved ones just as we are trying to make things better. We’ll want them to change and grow at the same pace we are.  (Spoiler: they probably won’t.) Again, patience is important.  

Another element of this is understanding enabling. When we enable, we are dependent on the person with the addiction. Our dependency lies in our expectation that the person with the addiction stop behaving the way people with addictions behave. And we get angry or upset or hurt because we believe they’re choosing the addiction over us. Or choosing to hurt themselves. Or not doing what we believe they should be doing. Our anger or frustration or grief happens because the other person isn’t behaving the way we want them to. Again, though, it isn’t the other person’s behavior or actions or words or beliefs that are the problem. It’s our expectations. We don’t have control over their behavior. We do have control over our expectations.  So when we learn to let go of expectations (which comes back to unconditional positive regard), then we are no longer impacted by the choices the other person makes.  This is crucial to recovering from codependency.

The more we do our own self-work, the more space we give the other person to find and believe in themselves. As our loved one believes in him or herself more, they will be more likely to accept the help you’re offering.

This work on understanding that we, and not our loved one, are in control of what we feel may be one of the most difficult – and most liberating – parts of overcoming our codependency.

Perhaps a first step is to look at ourselves with compassion:

  • What it would be like to let go of whatever judgments we have about ourselves?
  • Are our behaviors and activities effective for what we want in the long run?
  • How do our beliefs and behaviors affect how others interact with us?
  • Is there’s some value to changing our behaviors?

Shame is a huge part of all of this. We are ashamed that we haven’t been able to quit, that we feel out of control. We are ashamed that we’ve hurt others. Maybe we feel like we’ll never get better, or that we’re unlovable.  The beliefs are not always conscious; sometimes they’re below the surface, completely out of our conscious mind.  So It becomes easy, with these beliefs, to sabotage our attempts to improve, even when we consciously want to. Also, as mentioned above, we may not have had the chance to fully develop some of the day-to-day skills we need to get along in the world. That, too, can be a source of shame. 

What we can do to begin to change is to accept ourselves as we are. Acknowledge that we aren’t perfect, and begin to simply see ourselves with unconditional positive regard. Focus on what’s going right. And again… patience!  It’s taken a long time to be who you are today, and it’s going to take some time to become who you want to be.

The next step is to treat others with the same compassion and unconditional positive regard. Our loved ones won’t change overnight. They’ll make mistakes. They’ll continue to fall short. Maybe a lot, maybe a little.  Do your best to treat them with compassion. At the same time, look at your own role and how it might be contributing. How can you change your behavior, or your perspective?

Summing up: What does this mean in practical terms?

Whether you are the person struggling with addiction, or the loved one of someone struggling, be willing to take action for change… and then actually start making change. Doing your own work and getting the help youneed. There are self-help groups for people struggling with codependency almost everywhere, and increasingly, online.  There are some excellent books on the subject. If you have the option, going to therapy to work on these issues is probably the best and fastest way to start getting the help you need.

Another important part of this healing process is Gabor’s concept of response-ability, as he discussed in the previous lesson. We must be able to recognize and respond to what we are feeling within ourselves. Response-ability is a practice, not something we learn and check off the box and move on. Gabor’s own explanation of how he deals with feelings of abandonment are a great example: even though he knows, logically, that his feeling is irrational, it’s still there unconsciously, and it still drives his behavior. And once he is able to be mindfully aware of this, he calls on the capacity to respond to that feeling. He can let go. He is response-able.  

Practicing the mindfulness that enhances response-ability will also help us to better understand how we are interacting with others, how we respond to their behaviors or words or choices. We can become more mindful of our behaviors and what we feel when we’re around others.  This response-ability allows us to be able to authentically be present for one another, without judgment.  This is another kind of response-able.  We can respond with compassion and reason and kindness. This requires our own mindfulness, self-awareness… and practice. 

And response-ability, in turn, helps us to communicate more effectively, to establish and maintain mutually clear and effective boundaries, and how to hold our own feelings, and not allow others’ behaviors to influence how we feel.

In talking about codependency, we’ve mostly been talking about the one-on-one relationship between the enabling person and the dependent person. In reality, these roles rarely happen in isolation. Codependency usually happens as part of an overall family dynamic, where each person in the family plays some role.  This topic is beyond the scope of this discussion, but it is worth exploring further to see how the larger family dynamics may be affecting the individual struggling with addiction.  

Finally, what about the person who isn’t ready to get sober? 

The short answer is, there’s nothing you can do for someone who absolutely is not ready to change their behavior.  Of course, none of us want to hear that. But we aren’t our brother’s (or child’s, or parent’s) keeper. Each of us gets to choose how we live our lives, and those choices may not make those around us happy. They may be dangerous or even lead to premature death. 

It’s heartbreaking to see someone we love and care about hurting, or making decisions that aren’t helping them.  Perhaps one thing we can realize is that whatever decisions they are making, those decisions make sense for that person in that moment. Our addicted loved one isn’t choosing drugs because they hate us. They don’t want to hurt us (even if they say they may say otherwise.) They are hurting. And for them, their addictive behavior is the only thing they know to do that gets them out of pain. Anything we tell them to get them to change is more likely to just make them feel more ashamed.  So what can we do?

The answer is unconditional positive regard. Love and accept our loved ones exactly where they are. Exactly how they are. Without expecting them to change.  Now… we don’t have to continue to actively support their ineffective behavior. We can set boundaries… “You can’t live here if you’re making those choices.”  ”I can’t be around you when you’re like this, because it’s just too painful for me.”   “I love you, and I’m here for you when you’re ready for help. But for now, you have to do what feels right for you.”

When we can truly see those who are struggling with addiction through the lens of unconditional positive regard, then we can love them… and detach until they are ready for help. The most interesting part of this is, often letting go allows them to get better. if we’ve been overbearing and controlling and demanding that our loved one go to treatment, or do this or not do that, it’s putting pressure on them. Letting go takes away the pressure. It lets them breathe. It allows our loved one to think about what s/he wants. 

And on our side, when we can truly let go, we can also let go of the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. We’ve done what we can do, and now it’s up to the other person. Often, both parties feel a sense of relief, and that, plus time and patience, can grow into a new and healthier, more effective relationship.

Perhaps the most neglected part of most addiction treatment is actually taking action to heal the addicted brain. We now know that the brain is capable of a deeper level of healing than we understood 10 or 20 years ago.  Our brains can rebuild the pathways that didn’t develop when we were younger. We can change the dysfunctional patterns we’ve learned. From Gabor’s perspective, this means we can actually heal from addiction.  That means we’ll no longer struggle on a daily basis to fight off cravings, and we don’t have to constantly live in fear.  

Now… it’s also important we understand what healing doesn’t mean. A good analogy is what happens when we severely tear a muscle. The muscle can heal, but it will form scar tissue. And it probably won’t be quite as strong as it was before it was injured. In many ways, our brain is the same. It will heal, but it won’t be quite the same as the brain of someone who has never experienced addictions. So what this means is, it’s very unlikely, if you have had issues with addiction, that you will be able to go back to occasional or moderate use of your drug of choice. 

But here’s the interesting part: Remember in earlier lessons, we talked about how, for those of us who have struggled with addictions, our drug-of-choice actually helps us to feel normal. What we feel using the drug is similar to what someone else might feel ordinarily. And that’s because of the differences in brain chemistry.  So when we heal our brains, we heal the brain chemistry, and we no longer feel the depression, boredom, anxiety, or other feelings that led us to use.  So we no longer have any need to use the drugs. But we also don’t have to give up the desire to feel happy, or content, or whatever the drugs made us feel, because as our brains heal, we feel those things naturally.

So how do we help our newly-recovering brains heal from the trauma and developmental deficiencies we experienced?  Well, Gabor tells us that the ideal conditions for rebuilding the brain’s neural pathways are essentially identical to the ideal conditions for healthy development of an infant’s brain: 

  • Attuned, responsive attention from caring people (loved ones or friends). This means someone who can give us unconditional acceptance. Someone who practices what Gabor calls agendaless listening. Someone who let us know that we matter, that our perspectives and opinions matter.  This person can be fully present with us, giving their full attention, without distractions, without looking at their phone, or letting their eyes or thoughts wander elsewhere.
  • Non-judgment and unconditional acceptance and love from those around us. This means that we feel truly accepted and loved, that they believe in us, and are truly present and engaged when they are with us. It means not feeling any sense of judgment from them about our beliefs, choices, lifestyle, behaviors, or other attributes.
  • Healthy food. This can be quite a wide variety of choices. The food should be minimally processed, freshly prepared, ideally low in sugar and fat, and include lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. These provide the building blocks that help our brains rebuild the deficient brain pathways and brain chemicals. Eating lots of highly processed foods, such as prepackaged frozen meals, fast food, deep fried foods, and most ready-to-eat snacks (chips, candy, cookies) generally won’t give us what we need. Sugar, caffeine, diet drinks, and energy drinks should be avoided or used minimally. All of these, especially in excess, impact how our brain pathways function, and inhibit our brain’s ability to heal and rebuild.
  • Outdoor activities and exercise. Sunlight is nourishing to the body and stimulates production of certain brain chemicals.
  • Exercise, even simple walking, enhances production of dopamine and endorphins. These brain chemicals have a powerful effect on mood, and activities that increase
  • Some spiritual endeavor. This doesn’t have to mean going to church every Sunday (unless that’s what you want.) It could mean anything from meditation to attending services at one of many denominations and religious practices to hiking in the woods to creating rituals of your own. Anything that helps you find peace and greater understanding is going to help.  Other things being equal, a spiritual practice you can share with others will likely have more positive effect in healing your brain. However, any practice that calms you, brings a sense of understanding, and centers and grounds you will be helpful.