If you read my blog post two days ago, you may be wondering, “What’s love got to do with this?” After all, in the examples I cited, I told you that both sets of parents loved their kids dearly, despite their markedly different ways of dealing with them, and their extremely different outcomes. So what did I mean when I said that parents or loved ones need to understand how to love the person struggling with an addiction? What does it mean to love her “the right way”?
To answer this, let’s go back to basics. What do I mean by “love?” It’s a fair question. If I’m going to tell you, “It’s the LOVE in ‘Tough Love’ that makes the difference” – and I am so convinced that this is true that I’m going to teach it loudly, clearly and repeatedly, to anyone and everyone who will listen – then it’s only reasonable that you should expect me to have in mind a very clear, specific definition of “love.” I do.
The best definition of love I’ve ever seen reads as follows:
“Love is patient, love is kind; it is not envious. Love does not brag. It is not puffed up. It is not rude. It is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful. It is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…” (I Corinthians 13: 4 – 8, King James Bible, New English Translation)
If you think about that definition for a minute, several features jump out at you that are incredibly relevant (but admittedly tough, and sometimes almost counterintuitive) for anyone who loves a person who is suffering from the disease of addiction.
- Love is patient, love is kind. As utterly infuriating as a person with an addiction can be, to love her “the right way” you must be patient with her and kind to her. Now, let’s not be naive. If your loved one truly has an addiction illness, then she is sooner or later going to “dance on your last nerve – with lead combat boots on,” as I used to say. Yet, to love her “the right way” you have to be patient with her and kind to her. Be stern, of course. Tolerate no nonsense. Do not allow her to abuse you, your other loved ones, your belongings, or your household. Set strict limits on her behavior and enforce appropriate consequences when that behavior exceeds those limits. But still be patient and kind — because you are dealing with a person you love who is suffering from an illness, not someone who is in control of her own brain and is willfully choosing to be an obnoxious schmuck. Treat her like someone who is sick and suffering, rather than just someone who is ticking you off.
- Love is not easily angered. I admit, it’s impossible not to be angered by the actions of a loved one who has an addiction – unless you are some kind of non-human droid or robot. But to love her “the right way” you must not allow yourself to be easily angered by what she does. It’s an important distinction; and it goes right along with the directive to be patient. Remember, this is an individual with a severe, potentially life-threatening brain disease. She does the things does, says the things she says, feels the way she feels and thinks the way she thinks under the direction of a brain that is diseased – almost totally controlled by a powerful and devastating disease known as “addiction.” Keeping that understanding at the forefront of your mind should at least help you raise the threshold at which you will become angry with her.
- Love is not resentful. Certainly, becoming resentful not only makes you feel miserable and worsens the suffering of your loved one, but it is also counterproductive. Think about it: isn’t it a lot harder to care for a sick person if you are harboring resentment against her? Of course it is! It just won’t work.
- Love rejoices in the truth. To love a person with an addiction “the right way” you have to “rejoice in the truth.” “How ironic,” you might think, “when she’s lying to me seemingly every time her lips are moving!” Yes, that’s true, but that’s why loving a person with an addiction is no easy task! That’s why this truly is tough love! You have to function as the person with a healthy, well-functioning brain, and not sink to the level of the person whose brain is ravaged by a disease. Resist the temptation to try to “trick” your loved one with an addiction into going into a treatment program, stopping using drugs, or anything else. Model for her the consistent honesty that you want her to employ with you. Be honest with her – brutally honest, if you have to – about her drinking or drug use; her other problematic behaviors and the effect they are having on you; and what you are going to have to do about it. (If you can’t be honest with your loved one and still be safe from her threatening you or hurting you in some way, then you’ve got a deeper level of problems on your hands, and you may be in a situation that you need to get out of, or change drastically – quickly.)
- Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. As if everything I’ve listed above isn’t already tough enough, here’s the toughest – and most critical – of all of the tasks of loving an addicted loved one “the right way.” The definition says you have to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things.” This means you must “hang in there” with your loved one. There are no “deal-breakers.” You have to love her regardless of what she has said or done – because she said it or did it with a diseased brain that she wasn’t in control of. You have to believe in her, long after she has stopped believing in herself. You have to love her, despite the fact that she probably hates herself. You have to endure with her; never give up on her. Never lose hope. Addiction is a devastating, chronic, potentially deadly disease, to be sure. But it is also an absolutely treatable, controllable and manageable disease. Don’t take my word for it. Just ask the millions of people who are right now, as you read this, in long-term, stable recovery! So to lose hope, to give up, to become discouraged, to “throw in the towel” not only violates my “Tough Love” principle, it’s downright unscientific! It flies in the face of abundant, credible, verifiable evidence that people can and do achieve long-term recovery from the disease of addiction!
- Love never ends. Your love for your addicted loved one should never end. If your love never ends, then by definition, it will outlast the pain, the headaches, the lies and deceit, the stealing and manipulation – all of the horrors that go along with disease of addiction – because all of those are temporary. All of them can be defeated. But you have to stay the course with your loved one. That’s how you love her “the right way.” When you have succeeded in helping your loved one achieve long-term recovery, you will see how many of those awful behaviors you’ve been enduring will slowly but surely begin to disappear. The hard work of true recovery – unlike simply stopping the use of a drink or a drug – calls on the person to address all of the associated behaviors and thought patterns that were part of the addiction. You, as the person who loved her “the right way,” will be there to enjoy the benefits of restoring her to the person that you loved originally – the one who was there before the disease of addiction hijacked her brain and everything it controls.
Is this “tough” love? You bet. There’s no better way to describe it. It’s extremely tough! But now you can see why it’s the LOVE in “Tough Love” that makes the difference. Sure it’s tough! But when you love the right way, you give your loved one the best chance of overcoming this dread disease.
Here’s the beauty of this: to love someone “the right way,” as I’ve laid out, you don’t need a high IQ or an advanced degree. Anyone can do this! It may be helpful to have some coaching or advising on how to apply this to specific situations (which, sadly, I never got a chance to do with the parents of my former patient I described in my last blog post). But I assure you – anyone can do it! After all, I’m talking about love! We all have the capacity to love! It’s what makes us human. It’s engrained in our collective species DNA.
Can we do it perfectly? Of course not! We’re not perfect; we’re human! But in consistently striving to meet that ideal of “loving the right way,” we end up doing it well enough to make the difference. Sure, you’ll fall short sometimes. But just as the person with the addiction has to try to tackle it “one day at a time,” you, her loved one, can wake up each day and rededicate yourself to loving her “the right way” for that day. One day at a time. It is incredibly important to love “the right way” in order to help a loved one with an addiction illness. That’s what love’s got to do with it.