I recently visited a NarAnon Family Group and was welcomed with all the love and warmth of a family member. Nothing is more important or essential to us as human beings as this kind of love.
As a recovering addict myself, I have known the strength and challenges of family. From my parents and siblings to my to my wife, daughter and myself, the closeness and attachment I’ve grown to safeguard has been an extraordinary advantage in living a healthy & purposeful life.
Like many families trying to reach out to loved ones dealing with addiction, my parents and siblings had to make the difficult decision to love themselves as much as they loved me before I was able to make my way into recovery. Making that priority shift to loving yourself as much as you love your addicted family member can often feel cruel. You may feel like you’re abandoning or cutting off your addicted family member from your love. But nothing could be further from the truth. Though it’s painful, we must redefine what it means to love in order to truly love an addicted family member. In my family’s case, it was their courage and strength to let go of me that allowed me to finally see how much I loved them. What appeared to be a passive act of cutting me off was, in truth, a very active and loving choice to invite me back into the family.
Perhaps the most difficult obstacle in making this priority shift to taking care of your own needs first is that it’s easy to become attached to the needs of your addicted loved one. In many cases, enabling an addict can become part of your identity. In NarAnon terms, this is called “having a qualifier” — the qualifier being the addict in your life. When you “have a qualifier” you are part of the cast of characters in an addict’s life.
This attachment can be profound in emotional and spiritual ways. And it requires strength and courage to release or let go of the addicted loved one. But this act of courage is the single most important thing for addicts to experience. It allows them to see and understand how profoundly their choices and behaviors have affected the person on whom they most depend to feed their addiction.
“Having a qualifier” is really just another way of saying that you have a need to rescue others, or that you’re an “enabler.” And at some point, you became as big a part of the addiction as the drug itself. Once you as an enabler end your addiction to the addict, you open the door for your addicted loved one to make the same decision. In doing so, you become a mirror of the difficult decision to choose love and recovery over addiction.
The Nar-Anon groups I’ve had the pleasure to know and interact with — both as a professional, and as a pilgrim on the road of recovery — often serve as a reminder to me of that mirror of self-love and support needed to get through the challenges of addiction.
No matter what your family looks like — a family of origin, or a family of choice — you must first care for yourself in a manner that is counterintuitive. You must make the priority shift to loving yourself first before you can help your loved one.
David Petersen, LCSW, LAC April 27, 2016