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How to cope with an addict

You need strong boundaries and no judgement when dealing with addicts. Like everyone else, addicts need to suffer the consequences of their actions.
You need strong boundaries and no judgement when dealing with addicts. Like everyone else, addicts need to suffer the consequences of their actions.

In the film “Traffic,” the judge (Michael Douglas) has a daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen), who is a drug addict. When Caroline is busted, she is asked about her circumstances by a policewoman.

Caroline explains that she has caring parents, attends a good school, has many friends, lives in a beautiful home, easily obtains pocket money and is an A grade student.

“Caroline, why are you here?” asks the puzzled officer.

Good question – and unfortunatley, it’s one that many parents, relatives and friends of drug addicts struggle with. Why do people who seem to have everything decide to get involved with the seedy world of illegal drug taking?

There are many reasons illegal drugs seem attractive. Some suffer deprived or abusive childhoods or experience devastating crises. They want to medicate their pain.

Some might say their reasons for drug taking are more understandable than those who come from supportive, loving families whose parents have put a lot of energy into creating a comfortable home for their children.

Perhaps, this is part of where the trouble starts. Maybe, for some people, life is simply too good.

Parents have fought their children’s battles, protected them, encouraged them, and told them what to think and what to do. But children need not only to grow up but also to feel grown up. The time for this is the difficult period called adolescence, which begins in the teens and finishes officially at eighteen but more realistically, for many, in the early twenties.

During this time, young people need to forge their own identity. Some find this easier than others.

Every society has its mythology of the hero or heroine. The hero/heroine ventures forth on a dangerous journey to fight dragons, demons or temptations. He or she will either succumb to them or defeat them. The mythical hero/heroine journey reflects the many transitions we make during our lives, including the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Indigenous societies institutionalise this transition from childhood to adulthood with ceremonies, physical tests, initiations or other rites of passage.

Our society does not.

The closest we come to having any rite of passage is passing a test to get a driver’s licence or turning eighteen. Neither provides, for many young people, the degree of challenge required to fulfil their need to feel like adults.

In the absence of institutionalised, challenging rituals, our youth often develop their own. Schoolies Week is an example where behaviour can involve heavy drinking, dangerous driving or other seemingly silly stunts. This  default right of passage can also include taking illicit drugs.

Peers often encourage these risky behaviours and the participants are likely to view themselves as brave because it involves an element of serious risk.

Unfortunately for many teenagers, taking drugs for fun can lead to addiction and, once hooked, the challenge for them becomes either how to obtain steady and increasing supply of their chosen drug or, if they are smart, how to beat their addiction. The latter, unfortunately, can be an constant battle.

As the debate over injection rooms continues, it is worth bearing in mind that, in societies that have initiation ceremonies and other rites of passage, some children do die. Although it may seem brutal, death is necessary if the ritualised test is to be sufficiently challenging.

While this is cold comfort to parents who have lost children to drugs, perhaps we need to accept that some of our youth will always seek ways of testing themselves and some of the tests they choose will be life-threatening.

Support for the Addicted

  • Don’t blame yourself. Self-blame is conceited. You do not have as much control over the behaviour of others as you think.
  • Realise that you don’t know them as well as you thought. People often only show you the person you want to see.
  • Accept the addict’s choice to take drugs. That means withholding judgement. As painful as you find it, they are where they have to be at this point in time on their life’s journey.
  • Let them experience the consequences of their choice. Don’t protect them. If they steal from you, call the police. If they are abusive, protect yourself. If they are unreliable, set limits and stick to them.
  • Grieve fully and deeply the loss of the person you thought you knew, your lack of power and the sacrifices you made for them. Grieving will help you detach. Only by detaching will you be able to support them as suggested.

Jeremy’s Fall

Jeremy, always an affectionate child, came from a supportive, loving family. His sensitivity was such that he often burst into tears when even mildly criticised. At school he did reasonably well and he had plenty of friends.

At twenty, he had no job, no interest in further study and was still living at home. Mood changes alerted his parents to the possibility of drug addiction, which was eventually confirmed.

Jeremy agreed to attend counselling to placate his worried parents.

In counselling, Jeremy openly admitted his addiction to smoking heroin. He said it was magical and gave him a wonderful feeling of peace and connection.

In good faith, he examined the downside of addiction: the stealing, the betrayals, the desperation to obtain drugs, and the likelihood that he’d eventually live in squalour. He reviewed the straight life: his past experience of work, getting and holding down a job, being responsible, having money and respect.

All issues from his past that caused him grief were also addressed and resolved.

The fatal day came when Jeremy knew he had to choose: the addicted life or the straight life. Only through making a conscious choice to get clean would Jeremy have a chance of permanently giving up the drugs.

Fully aware of all the positives and negatives of each alternative, Jeremy chose to stay addicted.

Some might say he is a sad statistic of failure, being of unsound mind when he made his decision, having no real choice given his addiction. Jeremy would say he has just opted out of our stressful, achievement-oriented life.

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