Abusive Relationship and Addiction
Table of Contents
By Toshia C. Humphries, M.Ed., M.A.
How My Abusive Relationship Led to Addiction
Fall consists of such joy for most of us. Football games, Halloween, pumpkin everything and festive family holidays. However, it also encompasses Suicide Awareness in September, Domestic Violence Awareness, World Mental Health Day and Mental Health Awareness Week in October.1, 2 This reality gives those of us in recovery cause to reflect on lives lost to addiction, as well as domestic violence, suicide or undiagnosed mental illness and those currently in the throes of Hell.
As we know, these very serious issues are not necessarily exclusive. In fact, a great deal of active addicts report experiences with domestic violence, instances and patterns of mental illness in the home—including but not limited to addiction, alcoholism and depression—co-occurring mental illnesses and suicidal thoughts or even attempts. Additionally, given the negative effects of active addiction on the family, the vast majority of us are all too aware of the cycle of addiction and abuse.
Many of us—prior to entering recovery—found ourselves the product of one or both cycles. Taking accountability and claiming responsibility for our own lives, we courageously took the first step, erasing our victim mentality and empowering ourselves through active healing. But some of us have only cracked the surface. There will always be another layer to uncover. As an adult child of an addict, raised in an abusive home and co-parented by an untreated adult child of an alcoholic with clinical depression, I can personally attest to that fact, and in honor of those who share a similar experience, I am openly sharing my story.
As a child, I witnessed active addiction; a confusing and scary experience for anyone too young to grasp the explanation. But untreated depression was no less damaging. I felt abandoned, emotionally neglected, lonely, fearful, distorted and burdensome. Both illnesses spurred a great deal of anger, frustration, irritability, shifts in mood, negativity, neglect, verbal and psychological abuse. More importantly, neither depression nor addiction offered a safe place for me to be me, and coupled together, they resulted in suicide attempts and domestic violence.
Becoming the Victim of an Abusive Relationship
I was not visibly battered or bruised, excelled in school, involved myself in extracurricular activities and appeared normal, so I was overlooked by school counselors and other helping professionals. When it came to assessing a need for help, I slipped through the cracks, so to speak, as most children in these situations do. I was a mixture of the Hero and the Lost Child—rarely seen and shining, when in view.
Yet, I witnessed terrifying bouts of violence, active addiction and suicide attempts.3 However, other than hand marks across my face, there were no physical signs of damage or injury. So, like a car accident victim with no lacerations, bruises or obvious broken bones, my condition wasn’t viewed as an emergency. But—just as with an auto crash—very serious injuries can be unseen, worsen and be potentially fatal without care.
So why didn’t I ask for help? Because I didn’t know I needed it. Denial was a close friend of the family. The psychological and emotional injuries deepened and worsened over time, and I simply learned to distract myself, escape the pain and self-medicate—something passed down from family. Unfortunately, denial, avoidance, escapism and substance abuse weren’t the only dysfunctional behaviors I acquired from family. I had seemingly perfected their same inability to love, honor and protect me.
As a teenager, I found myself in an abusive relationship with a star athlete—a popular kid adored by all the girls. But he was also a substance abuser with an undiagnosed mental illness who suffered extreme mood swings and attempted to kill me. In other words, he was strikingly familiar and felt like home to me. My immediately family did nothing to intervene. In fact, they blamed me—an opportune manipulation or way to justify their acts of abuse and shift responsibility to me. Blaming the victim—as we learn in recovery—is characteristic of active addicts and abusers. It’s an attempt to keep people weak and reiterate a destructive message already playing, repeatedly; “It’s your fault. You make people hurt you.”
Was My Abusive Relationship a Part of a Pattern in My Life?
The experience of abuse in relationships was a pattern throughout my life. Active addiction and other untreated mental illnesses—as well as the accompanying dysfunction and abuse—were more familiar to me than sobriety, mental health, personal growth or serenity. In fact, those without an active addiction or untreated mental illness who had a grasp of life skills and healthy coping were honestly boring and certainly foreign to me.
It seemed I had learned to navigate in chaos. So much so, I was turned off by calm waters and now subconsciously but actively sought the drama of stormy seas. I didn’t know how to sit comfortably in peace and quiet. In fact, it terrified me. I had not learned to be accepted, loved, nurtured, supported, encouraged, valued, respected and accurately reflected.
Then, I hit age 30, and suffered a devastating panic attack which forced me to seek counseling. In the first session, I came to realize something quite profound; the person doing the most damage to myself was me. I was now an adult and no longer being involuntarily subjected to abuse, addiction, dysfunction and chaos by adults, entrusted with my care and responsible for my emotional and physical safety. Instead, I was now knowingly subjecting myself to all those things. My relationship with myself had become the most abusive, and that’s the relationship on which I needed to focus—the one I needed to change.
I was fortunate enough to have an amazing counselor who suggested I envision a 5-year-old child sitting next to me. She told me to imagine that child constantly with me, and in every situation, ask myself, “Should this child be hearing or seeing this? Should this child be treated this way?” If the answer was no, it meant I needed to walk away. But it wasn’t just others who posed a threat. I had become my own worst enemy—my own abusive parent to the child within me.
I neglected my own emotional needs, starved myself in an effort to be pretty, physically beat myself up by running and working out constantly, criticized myself relentlessly, and so on. I had learned to abuse myself as others abused me and, therefore, continued to seek abusive, addicted and unavailable people because it was all I knew, until I learned something different in counseling.
Acceptance vs. Enabling
Family members and friends of individuals struggling with active addiction often face their own inner battle. It is difficult for parents, partners and peers to witness the self-inflicted pain and suffering. Moreover, the compassionate heart of a parent often seeks to provide unconditional love, support and acceptance, regardless. Spouses feel bound by the vows which state “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.”
Additionally troubling is the reality friends face of wanting to support, encourage and accept the person they love to avoid adding pain to their destructive process. The idea that being that sort of ride or die friend constitutes true friendship is a dangerous one in most situations. In the case of active addiction, it is deadly.
Dr. William Glasser—father of Choice Theory and Reality Therapy—designated acceptance as one of the seven caring habits.4 Alongside trusting, supporting, encouraging, listening, negotiating differences and respecting, accepting is a behavior which nurtures and serves to grow relationships. The seven opposite of these are defined by Glasser as deadly habits and essentially destroy or kill relationships of any category.
Caring Habit or Destructive Pattern
Because the above is true, friends, family and significant others feel they are wrong in refusing to accept the negative behaviors, consequences and resulting chaos created by the individual in active addiction. In fact, they toil over the idea of emotional detachment—the process of letting go—because the terminology and experience seems cruel or lacking in empathy for their loved one.
However, there is a difference between acceptance—a caring habit—and enabling. Enabling is a destructive pattern of behavior which resembles acceptance and other caring habits. But, contrary to its appearance, enabling is not love. It is in fact anti-love because it ultimately serves to keep the individual in active addiction.
Enabling is the process of;
- supporting, encouraging and accepting destructive, self-sabotaging behavior,
- repeatedly listening to chronic bouts of victimization typically resulting from self-orchestrated, self-inflicted or self-perpetuated personal drama,
- trusting the behavior will change regardless of the obvious pattern,
- attempting to negotiate differences by merely taking a passive stance in the face of addiction’s anger and ego,
- respecting the privacy—or secrecy—and destructive path of the individual rather than intervening.
Though the root of enabling is clearly prefaced with the seven caring habits, including but not limited to accepting, it does not grow or nurture the relationship or the individual. In fact, enabling kills both.
The only healthy way to practice acceptance with an individual in active addiction and avoid enabling is to simply realize there is a problem which is bigger than the individual. It is one only professional help can address. Rather than accepting the individual’s destructive behavior and resulting chaos, refuse to allow either in your life by suggesting professional help and emotionally detaching until that help is received.
The latter is not a cruel action, nor is it selfish. It is a practice in self-care—setting personal boundaries which protect against dysfunction. Moreover, it is an act of love toward the individual in active addiction because it holds them accountable, attempts to raise them to a higher standard of functioning and ultimately seeks to spur them into healing and recovery.
The Codependent Fable in an Abusive Relationship
A woman was walking along a bridge and noticed a man standing near the edge. As she approached, the man called to her,
“Excuse me, ma’am. Can you please hold this rope for a moment?”
The woman, wanting to be helpful, easily agreed without giving thought to her busy schedule, her destination or the dreams that awaited her on the other side.
“Hold the rope tightly, please,” the man instructed.
She grasped the rope tightly. She began to wonder what exactly her purpose would be, and she became concerned with time. She had a million things to do, all of which would open doors to personal success and long-awaited opportunity. Yet, she made no mention of the time for fear of what the man might think. She wanted to appear helpful, selfless, compassionate and kind.
So, she stood there holding the rope, gripping it tightly.
Suddenly, the man leaped off the bridge. The weight of his body dropping to the depths below pulled her violently to the edge. Stopped only by the safety railing, she found herself staring down at the man who now dangled precariously from the rope she was holding.
Little did she know, while she was thinking about her dreams that awaited her on the other side, the increasing scarcity of time and finding herself perplexed by her obvious need to set boundaries versus her tendency toward people-pleasing, the man was busy affixing the rope to his body. Now, she found herself in charge of this man’s safety. His life was literally hanging in the balance, and the rope to which she was now grasping was his only hope for rescue.
Getting Trapped in a Codependent Relationship
“What have you done?” She screamed. “You must climb up! I cannot hold you. Your weight is too much for me to bear. The rope is slipping. Climb up!”
She tried desperately to cling to the rope, bracing her body against the edge of the bridge, but the fibers were now ripping into the flesh of her hands. Her arms were already noticeably scraped and bloody from the concrete edge on which they now attempted to rest. But the constant pull of the man’s body, as it dangled and swung below, shifted her weight, and with every shift came a painful blow from the concrete’s rough surface.
“Climb up!” She shouted. “I cannot hold you any longer.”
The man stared up at her and screamed,
“You must hold the rope! If you let go, I will fall onto the rocks far below. I will die!”
She began to cry, reeling in the physical pain she experienced with every movement the man’s body made and terrified of the responsibility she now faced.
“I cannot hold you!” She exclaimed. “You are too heavy. I need you to climb up!”
The man stared up at her, seemingly helplessly, and shouted a desperate plea.
Don’t Get Pulled Down by Your Codependent Relationship
“Then tie the rope around your body. I gave you enough length when I first handed it to you—just enough to easily secure me to you. Use your body to bear the weight of mine. Do not let go of the rope. If you do, I will surely die.”
The woman immediately replied,
“If I tie the rope around my body, I could easily be pulled off with you. Besides, I have a million things to do. My dreams await me on the other side. I cannot stand here all day. I cannot hold you forever. You must climb up! You need to think about me and my needs too!”
The man became angry and bellowed,
“You’re the one that agreed to hold the rope! Why are you suddenly upset about it now? This is my life you have in your hands. A life is a bit more important than your to-do list, don’t you think? How could you be so selfish?”
The woman, not wanting to seem heartless and selfish, pulled the few feet of rope that remained on the bridge and carefully wrapped it around her body, tying it tightly to prevent release. The weight of the man’s body instantly cinched the rope to an excruciatingly painful point. It felt as though she was being squeezed in half.
She pleaded with the man, again.
“Please, sir. I need you to climb up! You are killing me!”
Recognizing Codependency and the Start of Recovery
The man gave one final response.
“I will not climb. Why should I? As long as you are holding me, I will not hit the rocky bottom below. Besides, it was your choice to hold the rope, and now it is also wrapped around your body. So, you might want to think twice about angering me. If I decide to throw a fit, that would be truly painful and possibly fatal for you. As such, it seems your life is in my hands now too. You have no choice. Only I do, and I refuse to climb.”
Letting Go of an Abusive Relationship
The woman, hearing those words, knew what she had to do. Valuing her life, the dreams she so wanted and deserved to achieve, she took a deep breath, untied the rope and simply let go.
Ready to Recover My Abusive Relationship
In recovery for what I would come to realize were issues resulting from being an ACOA (Adult Child of an Addict), I discovered the panic attacks from which I had been endlessly suffering were a result of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). The traumas of my childhood and resulting, tumultuous young adult life had left me with a diagnosis shared by soldiers who return from war.
That’s what abuse and active addiction is—war, in the home. The exposed and victimized children become products of constant battle, traumatic war scenes and shocking survival tactics, rather than simply having the joy of being a carefree child. Instead of memories, we have flashbacks, and we typically suffer from PTSD, depression, addiction and other mental illnesses, as a result of the horrifying war waged within the abusive and addicted home. It is a cyclical effect.
But, of course—as we know—there is hope in recovery from addiction. However, if we’ve survived abuse and/or addiction in our childhood home, we need more than simply treatment for the symptoms of our pain. We must also face the images, feelings and constantly playing messages—residual negative energy—haunting our minds. We must seek the help of a professional—or team of professionals, if necessary—who can guide us through the necessary healing process.
There is access to counseling, available through treatment centers and some IOP’s and sober houses—like Stages of Recovery—and provided for the purposes of promoting successful recovery. Support groups, medical treatment for anxiety and depression coupled with therapy not only provides the optimum effect with regard to healing; it helps prevent relapse. But, it’s up to us to reach out and request the additional help, so we can be the change we need and break the vicious cycle. And, like the step we took to get sober, we must first admit there is a deeper problem than merely our addiction; that, in fact, the disease is a symptom of the toxicity to which we were consistently exposed in childhood. We must detox from that too.