The Emotional Pain of Addiction–a Shared Experience

The emotional pain of addiction is a shared experience. The addicted person is profoundly impacted, of course, by despair, but loved ones are as well. And, despair is not the least of the pain caused by someone’s addiction.

An Avalanche of Emotions

Needless to say, an active addiction can run rampant through a life. The toll can be easily dismissed early on when denial is stronger than the negative consequences. However, addiction progresses, as do its consequences and related pain. Eventually, it can move throughout all realms of one’s life, taking its toll in every part of what makes us human and what it means to have a life.

Along with addiction’s movement through our lives, comes a flood of feelings. They mix and mingle, they surface one more now than another, and they keep churning. Whatever emotion we can think of will eventually run through the addiction mill–all of them, of course, except the ones we love to feel. And, unfortunately, the emotional avalanche of one’s addiction ripples out to those loved ones who are close enough to be affected.

Anger and Addiction–In the Addict and Others

Anger is a common emotion associated with addiction. In the addict or alcoholic, anger is evident in many ways. It can be mild in sarcasm or know-it-all-ism… in arrogance and up-0ne-manship… or just a habit of making others uncomfortable with passive aggression or veiled hostility. However it goes at the milder end of the anger spectrum, it is typically felt by those near it.

At the other end of addiction’s anger spectrum, there can be full-blown aggression, the ‘angry drunk’ who rails at others or starts physical altercations, for example… or the dominating and controlling person who argues and is belligerent verbally.

An addicted person’s anger can be persistent, toxic and difficult to endure. However, it is typically a sign that internally there is a great deal of struggle and pain. Things are out of control and anger is often a scramble for some sense of control.

For the loved ones of an addicted person, anger is common, too. It can be resentment and low-level irritation with the addicted person’s behavior or irresponsibility. It can flare into angry outbursts, shaming, blaming and attempts to humiliate. And, it can become an internalized seething that eats away at one’s health and happiness. A loved one’s anger is typically fueled by other emotions such as fear, anxiety, and grief. It is lashing out in pain, and a defense against pain.

Sadness, Depression, and Grief

Sadness, depression, and grief often mingle together, and people may not know how to separate them, or even to pinpoint what they are feeling exactly. The overall effect is obvious, of course. All three drain, deplete and impair one’s ability to function well. It feels bad to wake up in the morning, and there is no pleasure in one’s life.

A low mood is very normal in active addiction. Substance use dysregulates mood, causing destabilization and difficulty managing emotions. Frustration and irritability may become anger, for example, and a feeling that would typically pass lingers.

Addiction’s dynamics and consequences leave one disempowered, hopeless and helpless. Losses internally and externally occur. One loses self-esteem and self-respect internally, for example, and external losses can include relationships, possessions, reputation and lifestyle.

For loved ones, sadness, depression and grief are chronic experiences. At minimum, it is sad to watch an addicted loved one’s continuing decline. They are not emotionally present, and often disappoint when there is there is an expectation or responsibility.

Depression in loved ones is also common. Living with chronic stress depletes one’s ability to cope on a daily basis. Additionally, grief is chronic. One loses an addicted loved one in many ways–emotionally, mentally, as a contributing significant other, and often one loses them physically through absences, even short ways on a daily basis.

Guilt and Shame’s Role in Addiction

A good deal of the emotional pain of addiction is guilt and shame involved. For the addicted person, guilt and shame are often significant drivers for continuing to use.  As addiction progresses, guilt and shame increase, specifically triggered by one’s behavior, letting others down, and losing self-esteem and self-respect, for example.

People often turn to substances initially in their using history to self-medicate feelings of guilt and shame. The sources of guilt and shame are varied, and of course, depend upon one’s personal history. However, some to the common experiences that lead to self-medication are abuse, neglect and abandonment in childhood, as well as chronic depression, anxiety and trauma reactions. All such experiences are fraught with guilt and shame. Children, for instance, often feel responsibility for the traumatic events that happen to them, as do adults in certain traumatic situations.

Guilt and Shame in Loved Ones

The loved ones of people with addictions often feel a great deal of guilt and shame, too. They may feel responsible for an adult child’s addiction, for example, or feel too guilty if they refuse to enable the addict in their lives. Often fear of something bad happening triggers a loved one’s guilt, and they enable to ward off the anxiety of an addicted loved one being in withdrawal, becoming homeless, or not having adequate basic needs.

Unfortunately, shame is also a part of loved ones’ lives due to the stigma and misinformation about addiction so prevalent in our culture. Addiction is often regarded as a condition of immorality and weak character rather than a disease. By association, loved ones can be stigmatized, too, and often feel a need to keep their addicted loved one’s plight a secret. Consequently, there can be resistance to seeking help for the addicted person and loved ones, prolonging everyone’s suffering.

Coping with the Emotional Pain of Addiction in the Family

The emotional pain of a family in which someone is addicted is obvious. A tension lingers in the air between them. There is a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. At times, it feels as if everyone’s life is on hold, and though they are miserable together, they can’t quite seem to separate either.

This is common among families who are struggling with a loved one’s addiction, and it is a function of the illness itself. One is powerless over addiction as long as one continues to use substances. Loved ones are powerless over another person’s addiction because no one can control or cure someone else’s addictive illness. In such families, it seems there is no solution. However, there is one–the person with an addiction must go to treatment and once there, be open to it. Also, there are solutions for loved ones that can help whether the addicted person goes to treatment or not.

Loved ones may very well not find their solutions because they are looking in the wrong places. After living with another’s addiction for long periods, one becomes confused, thinking the only solution for themselves rests in the hands of the addicted loved one. It is easy to think that one can never be happy until the loved one sobers up. However, this is not true.

It is a mistake to put one’s happiness in the hands of an active addict and such a powerful illness. And, solutions for a loved one’s life live in the realm of personal manageability and personal control–not at the mercy of such a destructive illness. There are counselors and support groups like Al-Anon and Codependents Anonymous that can help loved ones regain personal power and live their lives successfully despite loving someone with an addiction.

Everyone in a family of addiction suffers. Each person takes a role on to help the family cope, and because it is an abnormal and extremely stressful condition, everyone is in some sort of pain for long periods of time. The good news is that families can heal no matter what the person with an addiction does about his or her life. Even if the addict continues on in active addiction, loved ones can redirect their focus, and resume their own lives, loving the addict from a distance.

Getting the Right Help is Essential

If you or your loved one has an addiction, getting the right help is essential. Addiction can be overcome at any stage of the illness, but postponing treatment will prolong the pain of the illness. Negative consequences continue to pile up as long as compulsive substance use continues. Withdrawal and detox begin to turn the effects of addiction on one’s life around, and it is the first significant step toward recovery.

Loved ones of a person with an addiction often have to abstain themselves. The have to stop behaviors that are hurting themselves, and tend to their own recovery processes. Loved ones need to remember their own rights and needs as a person with an independent life, apart from someone else’s addictive illness. They can get the right help for themselves in counseling and support groups.

Addiction recovery is more than possible. It requires the right professional assistance, openness and willingness. It doesn’t happen overnight, but there are many gains along the way of the recovery process for both the addicted and their loved ones.

Addiction recovery is very often family recovery. Each family member has carried his/her own portion of the emotional pain of addiction in their family. And, each individual must heal inside themselves, as well as in relationship to other family members. With the right help, relationships can be rebuild and re-established. They can find a firmer foundation than ever before, and the family can move on together.