Let me tell the truth about loving someone in active addiction.
“Why is my loved one (who is drinking or using) being such a jerk?” is a question that feels awful to ask, but it addresses the reality for so many people who have loved ones with addictions. And yet, it’s a question rarely addressed by quaint “Tips for Friends & Family” out there, so today I want to help fill in the gaps.
The truth is, there are actually many excellent reasons that your loved one might be acting less than lovely while in the throes of substance use disorder. Addiction is a disease that’s practically perfect for bringing out your beloved’s inner demons. How? Let me count the ways:
#1. Addictive behaviors in excess are already a bummer, but full-fledged addiction takes them to the next level.
Any level of addictive behavior changes the brain. Some of those changes are what make the behavior addictive! But engaging in them excessively really tips the scales towards trouble. They don’t call it “getting wasted” for nothing. You may have witnessed such changes in others before, or even experienced them yourself. For example, getting drunk leads to more impulsive, risky decisions, and less inhibitions. Excessive use of marijuana distorts perception and can create confusion, paranoia, and sudden anxiety. Opioids can cause euphoria, depression, risky behavior, and drowsiness. The list goes on and on.
When casual use turns into substance use disorder, what would previously be considered a “bad time” becomes a regular thing, as does the lead-up and recovery period. The negative experiences and aftermath also ramp up. Then the hallmarks of substance use disorder enter the scene—like withdrawal (disruptive symptoms from stopping the behavior) and other physical, emotional, and behavioral changes. Because alcohol and drugs change the brain, mood swings, irritability, and depression are common. It isn’t unusual for people with substance use disorder to seem to change their whole personality when they’re actively using.
#2. Your loved one might not remember being a jerk.
During a “blackout” or “brownout,” your loved one’s brain is so burdened that it stops making memories. As you might imagine, that does not make for great companionship while it’s happening. As the wise Amy Schumer stated, “Nothing good ever happens in a blackout. I’ve never woken up and been like ‘What is this Pilates mat doing out?’”
So what about afterward, when your loved one comes out of a blackout? Ah, surely it’s time for them to express appropriate remorse, right? Wrong! It’s very difficult to have a healthy reconciliation or create real accountability about destructive blackout behavior. Your loved one doesn’t remember and therefore probably doesn’t feel a true emotional connection to what they did. But you do! And you may continue to be impacted by what was said or done during that blackout, without getting any real resolution.
#3. Co-morbidities are common and come with their own set of challenges.
Substance use disorder has a high rate of co-occurring addictions and other mental health conditions. We often call this a “dual diagnosis.” This complicates the issues and proper treatment of addiction. And sadly, many of the most common co-morbidities are ones that can contribute to interpersonal difficulties, like social anxiety, PTSD, and major depression. So it is possible that a co-occurring condition is contributing to the behaviors that are making your loved one difficult to relate to.
#4. Failures in the current standard of addiction care make the toll on families much worse.
This is not a Cinderella story! More like Sleeping Beauty—your loved one is surrounded by a thousand thorny obstacles to overcome in order to get well and also treat you appropriately.
The average rehab cost is higher than the average American worker’s salary. How are they getting away with that? Consider this: right now we as a society act like there is no preventative option for addiction–people with substance use disorder are told they must “hit rock bottom” before “checking into some place to get better.” This means that a lot of people with substance use disorder hurt themselves and those around them quite a bit before they believe they are “bad enough” to need help. By that point, you, the family member, are likely to be desperate and panicked, and willing to plunk down whatever it costs.
#5. It’s easier to be angry than sad or scared.
Your loved one may be angry and lashing out defensively, and you may also be angry, both for justified reasons and to protect your more vulnerable emotions. Anger has an attractive solution-oriented quality—it implies a cause, and incites energy for action and protest to correct that cause. Anger is strangely hopeful in that regard; it assumes whoever is making one angry has some level of autonomy and control over the situation. The same goes for guilt, except guilt assumes oneself has autonomy and control.
But the reality of addiction is that it is, by definition, a loss of control on the part of the person with substance use disorder. And you, on the outside of their substance use, don’t have control over it either. You didn’t cause it, can’t control it, or cure it (the “3 Cs” of Al-Anon). What is left when you can’t rationally be angry at the addict or at yourself? Sadness and fear. Both are uncomfortable.
So there you have it. The reason your addicted loved one is acting like a jerk? It’s the nature of the disease. It sounds simple, but in reality, it is devastating.
It’s important to recognize the reality of the situation—not to absolve your loved one of responsibility for their actions or to give you a free pass to retaliate, but so that you can make decisions appropriately for what comes ahead. You will have to draw boundaries and make decisions. Being as informed as possible about the reality of addiction will help you do that for you and your loved one. Addiction is a health condition that comes with well-studied and documented behavioral side effects, much like other conditions like dementia or narcolepsy.
As someone who has been through all this, I have benefited from learning all of the above. I also want you to know that there is hope, and that hope is in what we refer to as “recovery.” Our Workit Health world is filled with people who have been through the hell that is active substance use disorder, turned hellish themselves, and come out on the other side the shining people we always knew them to be deep down.
That means your loved one might come back to you, their lives, and themselves. People can and do heal in recovery and rebuild their relationships. I am rooting for that to happen for the one you love, too.