Addiction, in one form or another, has played a role throughout my life. Not because I've struggled with it so much myself, but because many of the people around me over the years have and, in turn, it's affected my life in a multitude of ways. Alcohol, drugs, food, spending...these addictions have all impacted my life in some way, whether it be through relationships with friends, family members, or romantic partners.
I've done enough self-reflection and Al-Anon meetings to understand that, in most cases, it was my codependent nature--my tendency to feel empathy for others, to want to help them--that attracted these people into my life. Just as an addict is never "cured" but forever in recovery, a person like me, whose tendency is codependency, has to take it one day at a time and be very conscious of how we interact with the people who continually impact our lives with their demons.
I might've bowed out of actively participating in the addiction game awhile ago but, as those of you who've been in my shoes know, you can leave the game (no longer enable, keep your distance, love from afar) but sometimes still never fully get out. For instance, a mother may no longer enable her addicted child, but she's never able to fully step away from that relationship. Instead, you carry on with life as best you can and witness the heartbreaking game go on from the sidelines.
Here's the interesting thing about being the one watching from the sidelines though--
there's a lot of talk about the pain the addict feels
there's a lot of talk about the enmeshment the co-dependent feels
but there's not a lot of talk about how the loved ones living life from a distance on the sidelines feel.
So I write this today for you, because I know it's not an easy place to live. Life lived on the sidelines of addiction puts you in a precarious situation: you keep your distance enough to protect yourself, yet you never feel totally free as long as someone you care about is struggling. Life as a recovering codependent means always staying aware of not getting sucked back into the game. It’s a daily commitment to somehow learn how to love from afar without detaching completely. We live life somewhere in an undefined middle.
For the addict willing to admit they’re powerless, willing to get help—let me say I have immense respect and compassion for you. But as I live longer and grow wiser, watching the game from the sidelines for years—in some cases even decades—my patience and sympathy for the addict living in denial lessens. I can understand on an intellectual level the real reason why they won’t take the first step: fear. But my heart feels less compassionate—it feels like it’s coated with a build-up of frustration and weariness, hardened for reasons I can’t even name.
Maybe it’s for the massive amount of time and energy over the years spent in vain...
maybe it’s from watching wake-up call after wake-up call go ignored...
maybe it’s for the terribly insulting game they play where they look person after person in the eye time and again and exclaim “problem?! What problem?” as if we can’t see what’s going on in our own lives with 20/20 vision. As if we can’t trust our own wisdom.
Maybe it’s for all those years that it was us, not them, doing the work--attending the meetings, going to counseling, reading the books--while they continued to sit smugly on their throne of denial, looking down, watching the destruction around them. Watching those they love in pain, pleading with them to get help, scrambling to clean up the messes they’ve made...all the while attempting to convince those around them that things are not what they seem--all so they can remain in the comfort of their denial, their hiding place from pain.
I know it's got to be hard as hell to make the decision to give up that seat, but it's also hard as hell on everyone around them living in the wake of their destruction.
The nice thing about moving from the field to the sidelines is that you begin to find your inner strength, your truth, your voice. And I’m sure the truth I’m sharing here isn’t going to sit well with everyone reading, especially those who, deep down, recognize themselves in the addict-in-denial I’m describing. If that’s the case for you, I’d tell you that my intention in writing this is not to insult you, it’s to give a voice to those on the sidelines. But if I did indeed insult you, the question is—at the risk of sounding harsh—should I care? Where has the regard ever been for how we feel, for how your addiction has affected our lives? This isn’t about shaming you, it’s about shining light on the unfiltered truth of how we feel—those of us who have been impacted by your choices. Because, if we’re not honest about those feelings, that doesn’t mean they’re not there, they’re just hidden in the dark. And, as we know, addiction thrives in the dark.
It needs light—truth—in order to be exposed and healed.
It takes a tremendous amount of bravery to admit you have a problem, but it also takes bravery to make the decision to move from the field to the sidelines and do the work involved to stay there—to witness our loved ones slowly self-destruct, yet not have the luxury of a hiding place to run to from the pain of it all. The addict in denial gets something we on the sidelines don't: they get to numb the pain of life while the loved ones around them are left to feel the effects of their destruction unanesthetized. When life gets stressful for us--when the bills pile up, when a loved one dies, when s**t gets REAL--we do the most grueling work of all: dealing with it, feeling it. Not tapping out. That takes courage.
And yet, with all this being said—all these complicated emotions felt—we remain on the sidelines. We remain there because we're not done with YOU, we're just done with your disease. Yes, we may be resentful or bitter, but we’re also strong and faithful. We may no longer be willing to participate in your game, and we may carry on with our lives, but we are forever on the sidelines, checking over now and then to see if you’ll meet us halfway. Praying we’ll get the call that the game is over because you’ve called time on it, not because you’ve been defeated.