When it comes to a loved one’s addiction, denial is a slippery concept to grasp. For me, I recognized my husband had a “problem”; what I wasn’t ready to admit is how deep that problem ran and what kind of solution he needed.
What signs of addiction should I be looking for? I didn’t have many resources. So during my husband’s active addiction, I became a glutton for addiction television. Shows such as Intervention, Rehab with Dr. Drew, the Addiction series on HBO.
The addicts I saw on television lived on the streets, they stole from their families, they got arrested many times—my husband never did any of that. Maybe he’d start a fight and lock himself into our bedroom, but he never left home for days. Maybe he lied about where he got his money, but he only pawned his own belongings. He went to work every day. He paid all our bills. He wasn’t one of them.
I saw for myself how powerful denial could be. But I couldn’t admit that I was in denial. I was in denial that I was in denial.
I learned a lot from those shows, but because they spent so much time dwelling on the extremes that addicts can go to and because my husband stayed in the middle of the road—what these shows did was aid in my denial. My husband was not that bad, so he couldn’t need that much help.
Now that we’re on the other side; now that my husband and I are each committed to our own recovery, I wonder what it would have taken for me to see that yes, my husband was like them, and he needed more help that I could give him. If I had to talk to that past version of me, I’d look for certain characteristics and ask myself some tough questions.
Addicts Struggle with Self Control
Does your loved one act compulsively? Do they find it difficult not to take actions that are sure to have difficult consequences?
Studies have shown that addiction affects the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that aids in decision-making—some call it the brain’s traffic light. When it functions at optimal levels, people make rational decisions based on perceived or experienced outcomes. Someone who doesn’t have addiction issues will have no problem having “just one beer” when they know they have to get up for a family brunch in the morning. The idea of suffering through a meal with Aunt Elaine and a hangover is just not worth drinking more. So the traffic light blinks red.
Those consequences for the addict, though, just don’t have the same impact, because their traffic light is not as sensitive. Even if they have had to suffer through a family gathering hungover—the memory isn’t strong enough to discourage them from drinking more.
This applies to harsher consequences as well, as those who love addicts know. The whole house could be burning down around them, and it still won’t be enough for that red light to turn on. They’ll just keep going.
Compulsive behavior is not limited to an addict’s drug of choice, but in other areas. They might spend money frivolously. They might gorge themselves on unhealthy food. Perhaps they work too many hours or spend too much time on the internet. My husband had a short fuse and was quick to get into conflicts and hold grudges.
Addicts Have Little Respect for Boundaries
Do you draw boundaries with your loved one and then find them slowly knocked down? Do they make promises and break them, repeatedly? Do they act selfishly—doing things that they would never allow someone to do to them?
Addicts are expert at drawing lines in the sand. Any recovering addict can recount the times they’d redrawn that line: I’ll stop when I get that job, I’ll never steal from my grandmother, I’ll never use at work.
If they’re not very good at respecting their own boundaries, they can’t be good at respecting the boundaries of others. They’ll lie to their families about where they’re going, who they’re with, and what time they’ll be home. They’ll take too many sick days at work. They will commit crimes just to be able to get what they need.
Even when I set limits about what behaviors I would or would not tolerate, it seemed to have zero effect on my husband’s addiction. When I got upset at him nodding off during dinner, he would hide in the kitchen and eat cereal. When I took over our finances and gave him an allowance, he found other ways to get the money he needed.
Looking back, I might have done better at enforcing said boundaries, but because of his faulty “traffic light,” he likely wouldn’t have abided by any of them.
The Addict’s Personality Changes
Has your loved one done a complete 180? Are they making decisions they never would have made before? Are they more volatile, more excitable, more anything? Are their moods unpredictable? Do they change on a dime?
Here’s an analogy I like to use for how addiction affects the addict: Grasshoppers aren’t known for doing a deep dive into a body of water. But when they become infected by a parasite called a hairworm, they plunge right in and drown themselves. The hairworm can only reproduce in freshwater, so once it is fully grown, it impels the grasshopper to search for water and drown itself.
I compare addiction to that grasshopper, inciting the addict to act in ways that will drown them.
What happens is that once addiction takes hold, it tricks the addict’s brain into thinking they need the drug to survive. And so every waking moment is spent in this primitive state of mind where survival is priority number one. The addict will do anything they can to obtain their life-saving salve, and anything or anyone in their way will get pushed to the side.
I saw my generous and light-hearted partner devolve into an angry, irritable shell of who he once was. Once an open book, he became suspicious and secretive. And I never knew which version of him I was coming home to. Was it going to be the sweet guy I married? Or would everything that came out of my mouth annoy him to no end?
If your loved one’s personality changes so drastically—if they react cheerfully to an obstacle one day and overreact angrily the next—their behavior might warrant a closer look.
Addicts Fall Short in Multiple Aspects of Their Lives
Is what they are doing negatively affecting any other area of your lives? Are they coming close to losing their jobs? Have friends or relatives stopped speaking to them? Are their finances in disaster?
Addicts spend so much time focused on that one thing—their drug of choice—and that one thing is so consuming, they blow right past everything else. Their traffic light is busted, so they start mowing down their whole lives.
They make any excuse to prioritize their drug of choice over anything else. When someone’s life is that out of balance, it all starts falling down. Beyond that, bills don’t get paid. They’re too high or sick to go to work. Of course, the addict’s health begins to deteriorate, not just from using, but also because of how little they take care of their bodies. They often eat unhealthy, when they do eat, and rarely get enough exercise.
Their personal relationships take a hit as well. Because they’re breaking boundaries left and right, many of their loved ones have reached their limits. It’s not uncommon to see someone in long-term addiction with only one or two loved ones clinging on to hope, if they have anyone at all.
The hardest thing I’ve ever had to admit was that my husband was an addict and that he needed long-term care. If I’d known what to look for, I might have come around sooner.
I do believe that portraying the lives of addicts on television and other media is important to breaking down the stigma of addiction and getting other addicts help. Still, I don’t watch addiction television anymore.