Letting Go of an Addict Doesn’t Mean Stop Caring

By Published On: March 25th, 2022Categories: Parenting and Family Recovery, Recovery Tools & Tips

Anyone who has spent any time in 12-step recovery meetings or the mental health world has heard the term “let go.” The actual meaning of this term depends on either the speaker or the listener. Some people believe that letting go means withholding affection. To others, letting go means looking the other way, or pretending the problem doesn’t exist.

In other words, people who hear “let go” for the first time often think this means they are supposed to disconnect from their loved one and stop caring. We’d like to present an alternative perspective on what this phrase actually means.

In short, letting go means deciding to stop focusing on things outside of our control (like our loved one’s recovery) and start focusing on things we can control (such as our words, actions, and how well we take care of ourselves). True letting go involves a process of clarifying priorities, learning how to respond, expressing love positively, and admitting and accepting powerlessness over the outcome.

Additionally, it can be a big part of recovering from the family disease of addictionif the drug user isn’t ready to sober up yet.

What it really means to let go of a drug addict son or daughter

Love is not always pleasant. Sometimes the act of love means taking actions the other person doesn’t like. Bishop Robert Barron says love is “truly wanting what is best for another person and then concretely doing something about it.” When a family member of an alcoholic or addict son or daughter finally says without equivocation: “We cannot continue to live this way” and offers the user a choice between getting help or leaving home, they have demonstrated love and begun the process of letting go.

This can be especially difficult if we’ve been integral to the decision that it was time to go to rehab.

The parent in this scenario must have already admitted powerlessness over their loved one’s disease and decided not to nag, scold, or argue. They have likely already sought medical advice or spoken to a counselor. They may have even begun their own healing by searching out their own shortcomings and making changes personally. 

This is what letting go really looks like: we have to let go of the belief that we can control others and start putting energy into things we can control. Since we all have personal blind spots, this usually means seeking professional perspectives and deciding to permit another to face the consequences of their actions. If this is the case, we can truly and cleanly support the addict in our lives from afar without enabling them.

Parents often have a very hard time with this, and it’s not hard to see why. However, we would like to remind them that this process of letting go is often the impetus for the addicted individual to actually get sober.

How to get started letting go

A loving act like this is reinforced when a clear plan is laid out and followed through. This can include educating yourself about available treatment centers or support groups in your area and even offering to help facilitate the admission process. Sometimes when people try to act on tough love, they do so from a place of anger and resentment.

Avoid using terms like “tough love.” Tough love usually comes from an emotionally charged place and parents can make the mistake of acting irrationally by taking impulsive actions like drug testing their son/daughter. The loved one who needs help may only feel the animosity, which often creates more rebellion toward whatever agenda is being pushed. “Maybe it would be easier for me to quit if my family treated me better” is a lie that many addict sons / daughters have told themselves; one that can be side-stepped with the right approach and perspective from the family. Lastly, it can be hard to remain firm with plans and boundaries once that feeling of anger/ resentment subsides. 

Feelings vs. Reality

The Carl Buehner quote “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel” is helpful to remember when communicating with an addict. The ultimate goal is to help encourage and facilitate recovery. Although a drug abuser can, and should, learn from consequences, he or she needs to know that help is available. Sometimes the person in need of help has a difficult time asking for it. Letting go without love can leave a person feeling lost and abandoned. Remember when letting go to do so with a spirit of love and compassion.

What Now?

One of the biggest challenges in letting go of an addict that you love is the concern that arises after all the boundaries and plans have been set in place. A family member can do everything right in terms of confronting issues lovingly with the drug or alcohol user, offering young adult or teen appropriate treatment options for the addict to face reality, and allowing the addict to make their own choice. What then? There is still no way to control the outcome.

Enter more fear, more what-ifs, even if the addict seeks treatment. The disease of addiction is a family disease and there are many options for afflicted family members. From support groups, to counselors/ therapists; there are people that can help the family, not just the addict. Fear, anger, guilt, relinquishing the illusion of control, and enabling are some of the main things that a family member may struggle with even once an addict has sought help.

Addressing one’s own struggles with the aforementioned issues will result in a better dynamic in the relationship; for at least one involved party is healthier. To let go does not mean to stop caring, instead it means to shift the focus. Instead of spending energy on things outside of your control, such as the addict, their behavior, or their odds of recovering), focus on things within your control. This includes your contribution to the relationship, any and all associated emotions, and how to grow and live regardless of the drug addict’s actions. 

About the Author

Clint Stonebraker, the executive director of the Insight Program.
Clint Stonebraker has worked in the substance abuse treatment field since 1987 and has been the owner of The Insight Program since 1993. Clint Stonebraker has overseen the expansion of Insight into Greensboro, Charlotte, and Raleigh North Carolina as well as growth in the Atlanta area. Clint is committed to providing quality care to individuals and families affected by substance abuse.

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