If you are a relative or friend of someone with an addiction, you probably always feel as if you are trying to communicate with a brick wall. Nothing you say or do, ever seems to get through to the person you are trying to help. This can be very frustrating, and often leads to anger and further breakdown of the good relationship you once had with them.
It’s so obvious to you, and everyone else, that they are damaging themselves and others, even if they can’t see it for themselves, so you feel like yelling at them, “Why won’t you just listen?” It feels as if they deliberately don’t, or won’t, listen. Their refusal to listen could be caused by several reasons.
- perhaps they are still at the stage where they deny that they have a problem, even though it is clear to everyone else that they do. They tell you that everything is fine, there’s no need to worry, and you should just get lost and mind your own business. (Good manners seldom co-exist with addiction).
- Or maybe they do realise they have a problem, but they already know they cannot control it anymore – and they cannot bear to hear you telling them so. Hearing you telling them that they are damaging themselves and their family, only adds to the shame and humiliation they feel already – so they explode in anger and refuse to listen or discuss it.
It’s important to realize that so called ‘problem behavior’ related to potential addiction, may not have yet progressed to the stage of an established addiction. People go through different stages of insight and denial when they are developing an addiction. It’s possible they already know in their hearts that they’re beginning to lose control, but cannot admit it, even to themselves.
Denial of reality is a normal, human, psychological protection device. It generally swings into action when reality doesn’t bear thinking about. It is not deliberate, and it doesn’t have to be about addiction. It can be about anything. Denial often occurs soon after a cancer diagnosis, or when having to face the reality of war. Denial is understandable, and it helps people cope, but at some point, reality has a knack of refusing to be denied any longer.
So when someone close to you refuses to listen, no matter how much you yell and plead with them, it’s because you are challenging their denial defense-system. They don’t want to be confronted by reality, so they block you out.
In the case of addiction, denial of reality is common. It allows people to convince themselves they can still control their behavior, even when they cannot. This is a way of protecting themselves psychologically. It’s important to understand that when loved ones refuse to listen to you, it’s not your fault.
It’s also important for families and friends to understand that whichever reason addicts have for refusing to listen to you, it’s not because they are being deliberately difficult, or stubborn. I know it sounds and feels as if it is, but it really isn’t. It’s not about you at all – it’s about their internal conflicts and struggles.
The slide into addiction is a slippery slope where control over ‘the problem’ is gradually lost. It’s not easy for anyone to judge exactly where any one person is on that downward slide, at any one time, even for the affected people themselves. As a general rule, the addicted person is the last person to admit to themselves and others, that their problem has become serious.
This is because it’s the nature of addiction to be driven by compulsions and desires that have grown beyond a person’s control, and at some level, they know it – they have developed (or are developing) an addiction, and your sensible, well-meaning advice seems to only make them feel even worse about themselves than they already do.
Why would anyone continue to destroy themselves and others, and yet not listen to someone who is trying to help them?
As a friend or relative, you can clearly see there’s a problem, and it’s natural to believe it must be obvious to the person concerned as well. So why won’t they just listen to reason, or agree to get help, or do something to stop the downward spiral that you can see so clearly? It just doesn’t make any sense. And you are right, it doesn’t. To people who don’t have an addiction, it makes no sense at all.
The power of addiction is that it has become an internally driven force that is no longer susceptible to normal rational thought, reasoning, or good sense. Not yours, and not theirs. Everything that the addicted person thinks, feels and does, including listening to good advice, sensible decision-making, and impulse control, is now being blotted out by the intense desire to feed their addiction.
The knowledge that they are damaging themselves is now outweighed by their need to supply their addiction with what it demands. Their priorities have become completely reversed. Now, reason, love, and respect for the feelings of others is over-ridden by the power of the cravings generated by their addiction. This is not easy to come to terms with for the friends and family of people with addiction.
It’s not personal – addicts don’t hate their family, even if they say they do.
How can families cope with such hurtful behaviour? Some people find it easier to cope if they can distance themselves from the idea that their loved one’s behaviour is personal – and it really isn’t. Distancing yourself emotionally can help to make the unbearable, bearable. It’s not easy to do, but at least by trying to do it, you can help to reduce the damage to yourself and your family.
People in the grip of addiction are not deliberately trying to hurt you. Mostly, they are trying to survive from one day to the next, obsessed with the need to know where they can get their next drink, or fix or hit. Your needs and feelings are no longer their priority, and that’s hard to take for anyone.
It’s not that they don’t care that they are hurting you, they frequently hate themselves for what they are doing – but it still hurts when you are rejected by someone close to you, who refuses to listen when you are trying to help.
But, in order to protect your own well being, you have to understand and believe that it’s not personal. It’s not about ‘you’, or the relationship at all, it’s about the damaging nature addiction.
Rehab and Families.
When someone with an addiction enters Rehab, most institutions will help and support the families as well as the addicts themselves. This is important for several reasons.
Addiction damages families almost as much as it damages the addict themselves. Families need to understand about addiction just as much as the addict does. Why? It’s because Rehab will only last for several weeks, and after that, the ‘recovered’ addict goes home. They resume their life again in the real world, with their families, friends and employers, if they have them.
The discharged addict will return into an environment with all the old temptations, friends and influences that existed while they were developing their addiction. If families and friends understand about addiction, and about which sort of situations are high risk situations for relapse, they can help their loved ones to avoid these situations. The family’s support and understanding is very important, if the former addict is going to be able to maintain their Recovery and avoid relapses.
I will be writing more about Rehab, Risks, and avoiding Relapses in up-coming articles.
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