I’ve written here before about my conversations with Dr. Gabor Maté, and his life-changing book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a comprehensive exploration of what addiction is, its causes and consequences, and much more. As well as being a bestselling author, Dr. Maté is a renowned speaker, highly sought after for his expertise on a range of topics, including addiction, stress, and childhood development.
I was curious about family members who are dealing with a loved one’s addiction. What can they do for those who are caught in the grips of active addiction? It mattered to me because when people are that deep in addiction, they’ve lost themselves—they’re gone in a way. I know I was. I know there was nothing my family could have done no matter how much they wanted to help me.
Gabor didn’t agree with me. According to him, “You don’t know that. What you do know is what they tried didn’t work, but you don’t know that there’s nothing they could have done. In one sense, you are 100 percent right: There’s nothing they can directly do to change your mind. There’s nothing they can directly do to change your mental status. There’s no way that they can talk to you, advise you, control you, beg you, accuse you. That does not mean there’s nothing they could have done.
“Imagine if your family had come to you and said, ‘Chris, here’s how it is. We recognize that your addiction is not your primary problem. Your primary problem is that you’re in a lot of pain. And that pain is not yours alone. That pain has been carried in our family for generations. And we’re as much a part of that pain as you are. You’re just the one who’s soothing it with addictive behavior. In fact, you’re the one whose behavior shows us how much pain there is in our family. Thank you for showing that to us. So we’re going to start working with you, because we realize that we’re as much a part of it as you are. We’re going to take on the task of healing ourselves. We invite you to be there if you feel like it. And if you’re not ready, sweetheart, then just do what you need to do right now.’”
Isn’t that beautiful? I can’t promise with complete certainty that if my family had said those things, I would have reacted differently, but the hopeful and optimistic part of me believes I would have. If nothing else, I can see how taking that approach shifts the conversation away from being accusatory and toward an attitude of compassion, acceptance, and unconditional love, and that’s one thing I know for sure, those are the most potently powerful things in life.
Gabor wasn’t blaming my parents. He recognized that they loved me and did their best. He was just showing me that there is something that people who love someone the throes of addictive behavior can do.
“Families also have to decide, can I have this person in my life, or can I not? If I want them in my life, there must be certain rules, like they can’t steal from me and so on, but if I can have them in my life, I must accept them exactly as they are, exactly where they’re at, and 100 percent accept that right now they’re using because they feel they need to. I’m not going to nag them, cajole them, advise them. I’m not going to say a thing that they didn’t ask me about. I’m just going to accept that this is who they are and I’m just going to love them.
“That’s a rational decision to make. It’s equally rational to say, ‘You know what? It’s too painful for me. I can’t handle it. I can’t stand to see you do this to yourself. It’s too stressful. I can’t be with that, so I’m sorry, I love you very much, but I can’t be with you.’ That’s legitimate, too.
“What is completely nonsensical—and unfortunately the pitfall for most families—is to try to be in the addict’s life and try to change them all the time. That’s the one thing you cannot do. So either accept or lovingly distance yourself, but don’t try to stay in there with the intent of altering the other person. To the addict, that signals only one thing: ‘They don’t love me the way I am.’ That’s my advice to families. I do believe that addiction in a person can be a healthy wake-up call for them and for everyone in their lives.”