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I lived with a person with alcohol abuse problems for two years. While the experience changed me fundamentally, it also taught me a lot.

Loving someone with an addiction is tough. Since you care, you want to do everything in your power to help the person you love to heal. However, their behavior can wreak havoc on your mental health, and it can even put you at risk of physical harm. If you are currently going through this, you are not alone.

Addiction and overdose death rates continue to soar in America. In 2017 alone, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses, a two-fold increase in just a decade. In our world today, pressures abound, driving some people to drugs and alcohol to temporarily escape life’s harsh realities, no matter what the cost. 

For a while, I raced to keep pace with my ex’s drinking. I didn’t do it because I wanted to escape. My motivation was more pragmatic. Toward the end, I couldn’t keep a bottle of wine in the house without him raiding it. We were struggling financially, and I merely wanted to enjoy a bit of my stash before it disappeared.

My former boyfriend isn’t alone. About 10 percent of millennials live with a substance abuse disorder, but only 1 percent navigate life with alcohol use disorder. Yet, knowing he wasn’t alone didn’t inspire him to seek comfort in others through support groups. Since he didn’t have health insurance coverage, he went without treatment until an arrest led him to court-mandated therapy. 

About 10 percent of millennials live with a substance abuse disorder, but only 1 percent navigate life with alcohol use disorder.

I wish I could say my story has a happy ending. In a way it does, at least for me. I broke free. However, it fundamentally changed the way I looked at addiction. 

Addiction is a disease. 

I’ll admit that there were many times I wanted to scream at my ex, “Just put the bottle down!” However, after struggling with my own substance abuse problems later in life, I now understand just how much addiction is a disease. It is not a moral failing.

Even though the descent into substance abuse might contain bad decisions, it doesn’t mean the person made them in the right frame of mind. As the brain becomes conditioned to the substance, it creates deficits in the prefrontal cortex that impacts decision-making. 

Addiction is a disease. It is not a moral failing.

Using the substance also becomes an operant response to stress. When the individual can no longer manage feelings like anxiety without turning to the bottle, they don’t know what to do. This powerlessness over their emotions creates a sense of despair that they’ll do nearly anything to numb, even when they realize the hazards of doing so. When your mind is screaming, “Take a drink,” or “I’m going to explode,” you do it regardless of the consequences. 

Intervention only works if the individual is receptive. 

Treating addiction is tricky. Even though it is a disease, the individual has to play an active role in their recovery. Unlike a broken leg, they can’t merely visit a surgeon, get a cast and wait for time to work its magic. They have to commit to getting well, and if they’re not willing to do so—or even admit they have a problem—they won’t change. 

Addicts often remain in denial for four primary reasons, and the language they use can help you determine your next steps to take. 

  • They think they’re in control.
    They might say things like, “Yeah, I got drunk, but everyone needs to cut loose now and then.” Even if negative consequences attach—like getting arrested for a DUI— they blame a hard day at work rather than their addiction. 
  • They don’t think their behavior hurts others.
    They might say, “Everyone has disagreements now and then,” after a drunken argument where they broke a ton of your stuff. This minimization is a subtle form of gaslighting. Remain aware.
  • They see themselves as a victim. 
    They might say, “If you had my pressures, you’d drink or use drugs, too.” They blame their addiction on the problems in their lives instead of taking proactive steps to overcome challenges. 
  • They just don’t care.
    Sadly, some addicts sink so low, they stop caring about the consequences of their actions. Consequences like divorce or jail time don’t bear the same weight.

Sometimes, you have to walk away. 

Though challenging, sometimes, you have to leave. After my ex was arrested and made a joke of his court-mandated treatment, I knew it was time for a change. He made it clear he wasn’t willing to try. 

It’s tough to love someone with an addiction. Take care of yourself and seek outside help. There are many ways to navigate the problem if your loved one is receptive to getting help. However, sometimes you have to choose to put yourself first if they are taking you down with them. In the end, as much as you may care about an individual, you need to take care of yourself, too.

Have you or someone you know ever struggled with an addiction? What do you wish people understood about addiction?

Image via IcÍar J. Carrasco, Darling Issue No. 13

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