Let Go Or Hold On? …When A Loved One Struggles With Addiction

By Heather Widmer LMHC, CAP

I’ve heard addiction over the years described by family members as: terrifying, heartbreaking, powerful, scary, painful and powerless (just to name a few).  When a loved one sees their abuser struggling and slowly losing parts of themselves, naturally there is an overwhelming feeling, and an almost “need” to want to help. Often times, that help quickly loses its boundaries and becomes enabling and/or control.  I don’t think most people sit back and prepare for the possibility that their child or the person they marry may have addiction issues, therefore when it comes time to knowing what to do, many are at a loss.

We want to help “save them from themselves”, so to speak.  “If I don’t help what will happen?  They’ll become homeless, end up in jail and have a criminal record their entire life, they’ll never get a good job, the family will be upset with them, and they may even die.”  These questions are typically what we tell ourselves which in return drives our behavior.  These thoughts may threaten our personal belief we have for ourselves as a parent, spouse, or friend and may even threaten any expectations or dreams we’ve built up regarding that individual.
But I want to challenge you for a second to think, “If I continue enabling and trying to control their addiction, what could happen then?”What is the difference between these two questions?  One is taking responsibility for the other person, and the other is taking responsibility for ourselves, our actions, our own outcomes.  And what underlies the two?  Fear vs Trust.

Fear has the ability to consume our mental, emotional, physical and most importantly our spiritual energy.  Fear causes us to believe the worst, to question God’s plan, to make us feel we have a false sense of control (which ultimately leads to burnout and emotional exhaustion).  Fear causes us to hold on, to doubt God, lack trust, stay up all night.  Fear is what drives a loved one to enable and control in the attempt to avoid any of the outcomes listed above.

Christ tells us, in Matthew 11:28, to cast all our burdens onto Him and He will give us rest.  As believers, and those who are watching a loved one personally struggling with addiction, this (unfortunately) can be extremely difficult to do.  The what-ifs, the unknowns, the fear of what could be if we hand over our loved one to God, hand over our concerns and worries.  Not a chance!  We know we need to trust God, but why is it so hard?  However, going back to my second question, what happens if you continue to hold on and not trust?

I’ve worked with a lot of family members who couldn’t seem to find the balance between help and enabling/controlling.  In this case I will use myself as an example.  My loved one was a polysubstance abuser (meaning, he abused multiple substances).  I knew when he wasn’t actively using he was a beautiful, loving, kind and gentle soul.  I knew what he was capable of, what he could accomplish, and what he was worth.  If he’d only get sober he’d be able to see it for himself.  It became, what can be perceived as my “mission” to love him so much that he would eventually love himself and stop using.  I would be enough to make him stop, I could do it.  Granted, this may sound extreme.  We were both believers and I believed God would help him “as well”, but my actions showed that I believed I was in control.

Well, I’m sure you can guess how this went.  My efforts failed. Despite what I did, he continued to use.  I took it personally, beat myself up and lost countless nights of sleep; until I got help where I truly learned about addiction/codependency/enabling and myself.  I began to see that even after I “let go” and surrendered him to God, he continued to do the same things he was doing during the time when I lost myself in his addiction and was trying to “save him”.

I’m not telling anyone to stop loving the abuser in your life.  Christ calls us to love as He loved and that most definitely included the sick and the hurting; but He also wants us to take care of ourselves and nurture our relationship with Him.  I’d encourage you to ask yourself what could happen (or continue to happen) if you don’t take a step towards surrendering your loved one to God, allowing Him to have control. What are you already losing in this process?

It all sounds easier said than done. I get it! You can’t do this alone.  My recommendation would be, if you are in a similar position and need guidance, to consider the following resources: Celebrate Recovery, Alanon or find a therapist who can walk alongside you.  Let God take care of the outcome, have faith and trust in Him.

“Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see” ~ Hebrews 11:1