(Don’t) Keep Coming Back, Part II

Thanks again to those who responded to my last article on why some partners or loved ones (POLOs) of those struggling with addiction/alcoholism may be reluctant to attend Al-anon. I’ll sum up the answers into 4 categories, based on public and private (i.e., emails to me) responses to the article:

1. Denial. For a POLO to attend an Al-anon meeting is to admit that the problem really is that bad. To give up the illusion that maybe things ‘aren’t so bad’ is to open a pandora’s box of emotions, such as anxiety, terror, guilt, shame and so on. A few of my patients have told me that attending a meeting was extremely depressing – i.e., “I can’t believe it’s come to this”. (Which, by the way, is a reason many of my patients who struggle with addiction give me for not wanting to return to AA meetings, that said meetings are “depressing”.  Interesting how addiction and co-addiction sometimes parallel each other.)

2. Embarrassment/Shame. Some readers told me they lived in small towns where everyone seems to know just about everything about everyone else. Thus attending a meeting is like letting the cat out of the bag, or “ratting” on the struggling loved one.

For others, attending a meeting is an implicit (or explicit) admission that they themselves are not enough to help the loved one. It’s a public admission of “weakness” or “not enough-ness”, since one of the underlying tenets of co-addiction is, “If he really loved me, he’d stop for good”.  This isn’t really true, but it feels true – and so attending a meeting is almost like stating, out loud and in public, “I’m really not enough for him or her to want to change”. And what a painful feeling that is.

3. Fear of Change. Another way of putting this is the old saw, “the devil you know is better than the one you don’t”. It is very hard to change the status quo or homeostasis of our lives. This is why, for instance, those who struggle with weight issues often continue to struggle even after a corrective procedure such as a lap band or gastric bypass, and so forth. The real “battlefield” is in our psyches, not our stomachs. This is also why people in the throes of addiction are encouraged to continue their recovery even after physical sobriety is established: underneath addiction lies a host of issues, including emotional, mental and relational problems that are not going to automatically straighten out just because the bottle has been trashed. That’s a fantastic start, yes, but now life itself must be lived – without the bottle – which is where the deeper, more lasting changes occur, or where “the rubber meets the road”, in recovery parlance.

It’s also very difficult, by the way, to begin focusing on yourself if you’re in the habit of keeping such close attention on the one with the addiction.  In fact it’s something akin to a foreign concept, the thought being, “Why would I focus on meI’m not the one with the problem.”  Of course, change has to start somewhere, and one person within an addictive system (family) can create outward ripples that effect everyone around her, with any baby step towards sanity, healing and healthy change.

4. It’s not my problem. Few said this but there were a couple of folks who said, essentially, that the addiction wasn’t their problem, and so it was up to the addicted person to take action and responsibility. This might be the opposite of a POLO who gets overinvolved, i.e. a distancing that amounts to, “don’t ask don’t tell”. This isn’t to say that any member of an addictive family is responsible for the behavior of the struggling person, or anyone else within the family. I guess my only concern here would be, pretending an elephant isn’t in the room doesn’t mean it’s not there, especially if you have to live in the same house as that elephant.

Thanks again for your valuable feedback.  I’m open to exploring this topic further, or others if you have any ideas. 

Copyright 2011 by Darren Haber.  Originally published on goodtherapy.org

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