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How to detach from addicted loved ones

By Michael C. Gordon, MD

Addiction is a chronic and progressive disease in which the afflicted individual has lost control of his or her use of mood-altering substances or behaviors. In most cases of drug or alcohol addiction, recovery is only possible with total and permanent abstinence from all chemical substances. Codependency, on the other hand, is a disorder in which an individual has become preoccupied with the addictive or otherwise dysfunctional behavior of a close friend or loved one. Codependency recovery also requires total abstinence in the form of detachment.

Detachment is the cognitive separation of the addict from the addictive behaviors, and selectively responding to the person rather than those behaviors. It acknowledges one’s own lack of control of the other person’s addictive behaviors — an acceptance that if the codependent cannot control the behavior, he or she might as well leave it with the addict. The codependent spouse might worry that the addict will get intoxicated at exactly the most inopportune time. In codependency recovery, he or she learns this worry itself exists only in the mind.

Most people initially find the concept of detachment somewhere between bewildering and absurd. If they don’t worry about the addict, who will? They can’t just ignore the problem and act as though nothing is wrong. What if the addictive behaviors have a direct impact on the codependent (e.g. physical abuse, spending the paycheck on drugs or alcohol)? It takes most people several weeks or months to fully grasp the part they play in their own problem of codependency. Once they recognize their role in the addiction, however, they are on the road to codependency recovery.

Similar to a recovering addict, a recovering codependent requires a great deal of support and help, whether through their own 12-Step program such as Al-Anon, or through professional help, or both. Typically the denial of the codependent is greater than that of the addict, because it appears so obvious to the codependent that the problem exists outside of oneself. “I don’t have a problem. He is the one with the problem. I will be fine if he gets himself straightened out.”

Addiction is a disease that affects the entire family and thus, recovery is a family affair. Often those closest to the addict are just as sick (or more so in their own way) as their addicted loved one. An essential ingredient in this situation is denial, an ego defense mechanism that prevents people from consciously acknowledging painful reality. And just as the addict is in denial, so might be the spouse or other close family member.

The addict may experience two stages of denial. The first stage is failure to recognize that alcohol/drugs are the problem. Instead, alcohol/drugs are seen as a necessary resource to utilize in order to cope with life, rather than a problem itself. Once this level of denial is broken, the addict then moves to the second stage: He or she believes that although a substance abuse problem exists, help is unnecessary. This also must be broken, or the addict is doomed to drink or use again.

Family members encounter only one stage of denial: failing to acknowledge that alcohol/drugs have become a problem in their own lives. For example, it is obvious to the husband that his wife has a problem with alcohol. His problem is her drinking and associated behaviors. He thinks that if only his spouse would quit drinking then everything would be all right. So, he devotes all his efforts to problem solving and attempting to change her behaviors. The spouse may not realize that his wife is struggling with alcoholism and in fact, could become offended if someone suggested such a thing. The drinking may not be recognized as an illness.

In many respects, codependency recovery is more difficult than addiction recovery. Oftentimes, codependent behavior is established during childhood, growing up in a dysfunctional family system. The denial is more deeply entrenched. Furthermore, the goal of codependency recovery is not as clear. The addict is not confused about whether or not he or she is drinking/using — it is objective and measurable. However, the codependent can easily fall into a relapse of worry, resentment, bitterness, self-pity or other negative emotions before he or she realizes what has happened.

There may be additional gray areas for the codependent. Where, for instance, does legitimate concern end and obsessive worry begin? The challenge is considerable and cannot be managed alone. Fortunately, there is an abundance of helpful literature on the subject, support groups abound, and well-trained, knowledgeable counselors and therapists are available to assist in the codependency recovery process. Clergy members also can serve as a beneficial resource, drawing on their religious training and education in mental health difficulties.

All too often, the codependent is the family member in the most emotional pain. Talking to a professional who understands the disease of addiction and has a passion for helping others find healing is highly recommended. This can be the beginning of recovery not just for the codependent, but for the entire family as well.

Michael C. Gordon, MD has practiced addiction medicine since 1971. His current practice includes patient evaluation, individual psychotherapy, group therapy and medication management. Dr. Gordon is the founder of The Atlanta Center for Pain and Addiction Management, an evaluation and treatment program for people with both chronic pain and substance abuse disorders, located in Smyrna, Georgia. For more information, call (770) 801-0980 or visit www.michaelcgordonmd.com.

More... The Recovery of Codependency


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23 Comments

  • Monica says:

    Thank you for providing this information on codependency. I felt like I was reading about myself in many ways.

  • Nett says:

    Oh my! someone out there understands. My husband is an addict and I’ve went thru all the bitterness, worry, stress, thinking I’m only person that can keep him alive, guilt if I leave. So many emotions.

    • Christine says:

      You’re not alone my childhood sweetheart Is an addict I’ve been with him 16 years off an on and I’m battling the devil but I can’t give up on him

      • Becky says:

        I’m also married to my high school sweetheart. 38years. 2 years ago to the day. I found out that he was addicted to meth. And prior to that a had a feeling he was having e affair with his cousins wife. Lies n more lies. Denies the drugs and the affair. Found drugs in our truck. He became irate yelling and accusing me of spying on him. Said he couldn’t live with someone who is going to accuse him of drugs. We have grown daughters one grandchild The youngest 25 found the pipe a nd a baggie. He left. Is now living with her. And still denies everything. I hired a PI. He’s not sleeping with her. but s t ill is using And sleeping on her property Which is 15 a.c. so he can do what he wants. 6 months ago. He was so high. He fell off his truck broke his leg n t o ‘re his acl n mcl. Didn’t go to a Dr for a week. I miss him. N love him so much. But th he trust is not there. I’m so blessed to come across this site,and read all of your lives. We are not alone

    • Jules says:

      Don’t let guilt or fear or worry keep you from leaving. You’re hurting him by staying. You’re destroying your self-confidence to stay. They all survive even after they are left. Some recover, others find new or old enabled to support their habit. You are not in a unique situation. You are not his saviour. You are not his only resource. Let go and leave if you haven’t already. And don’t do like I did and leave one addict for another type of addict, who thought he had no issues to tackle.

  • Gretchen Muller says:

    I spent the last four months “protecting” someone who is addicted to herion, and it broke me, thank you for the information.

    • Michał Pasternak says:

      You broke yourself.

      • Lynn says:

        Seriously, Michal. Where is this passive-aggression coming from? Have you been victimized by addiction through someone in your life or are you plagued by addiction yourself? Either way, there is help without victimizing others with such harshness.

    • Nett says:

      Hi Gretchen,
      I just read this response to your message and I find it so insensitive and uncalled for.
      I understand so much as I’ve lived it with a husband for 7 years. I’ve tried everything I know sending him to rehab,in which he walked out of, taking him to church with me, all trying to hold my family together. But reading these testimonies and articles help so much as I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve bottled kept his secrets and put all on my shoulders carrying the weight.
      It’s a process I’m trying to break away from myself. I’m attending church counseling but still can’t tell my secrets I’ve kept for him. I’ve kept my life so private as I’m still trying to protect him. Just keep reading be strong and maybe we can evitually find the help we need.

    • Mandy Stirton says:

      I completely agree with Nett. I am just now realizing how codependant I was in my relationship with the man that was my heart. I lost him in February due to alcoholism and my world has been turned upside down. It wasn’t until January that I realized that I needed to get out of God’s way and let him work. I have so much guilt about how my codependency may have contributed to his addiction. I wanted to protect him, to fight for him, to make sure he knew he was loved, but in the meantime my own life was so wrapped up in him that I was losing myself. I’m now attending al-anon meetings every week and the people there have been a huge part in my own healing and recovery. I completely understand both of your pain. And I also understand that we have allowed this into our lives, but it’s not really that black and white when you’re living it. It wasn’t until my babe was gone that I realized the degree of my codependant behavior. Sending hugs out to both of you. Keep on keeping on. 🙂

      • Lynn says:

        Good for you, Mandy! May I encourage you to drop the guilt. It will only slow you down in your recovery. You did the best you could with the tools you had at the time. Grace is new every morning for a reason, dear one. 😉
        Many wonderful people have said to me that the front windshield is so much larger than the rear-view mirror for good and obvious reasons. Go forward, girl! 🙂

    • Lynn says:

      Hi Gretchen,
      We don’t “break ourselves.” You have done as well as you knew to do at the time and are seeking new and better ways to deal with the situation just by being on this website. Good for you! Substance abuse is “cunning and baffling.” One day we may have more answers. Continue to learn, love and laugh, one day at a time. Blessings, dear one.

  • Jade says:

    Wow. Thank you all for sharing and for this article. I met the love of my life almost three years ago. He moved in with me a year ago and shortly after spent a week detoxing in a facility. I never saw my part in it until he was arrested last week for accidentally hurting me in an argument. We were and are both so broken. He now has a strict no contact order and i find myself devastated. I knew I wasn’t the person I used to be but had no idea how sick I actually am. My love for him and fear of abandoning him has kept me from dealing with our situation. The sadness and guilt is all quite overwhelming. I am going to look for an al anon meeting to attend hopefully they will let me in even though I no longer am involved in the life of the loved one with addiction.

    • Lynn says:

      Jade, Al-Anon, AA, NA doesn’t turn people away who are asking for help. You will find those groups to be very kind and loving and familiar with your issues. If you happen to run into a group that is NOT that way, look for another one immediately. 12-step programs represent unity, inclusiveness and acceptance to ANYONE who is seeking help and WILLING.
      There IS HOPE, Jade. You are NOT ALONE! Keep going back and let your group love you. It takes time. A long time. Try nor to be discouraged. Someone told me this. “You have been sick for a long time. Treat yourself gently, as though you’ve had the flu. We don’t call it ‘RECOVERY’ for nothing.” YOU MATTER, Jade. 🙂

      I love your name, btw. It is my favorite color and my son’s middle name. 🙂
      Blessings in your sure healing.

    • Ronay says:

      No one is turned away at Al Anon. Also, you might be helped by CODA (codepency anonymous). We can recovery together.
      All the best.

  • Kathy Kat says:

    My adult daughter is a pain pill and meth addict. I think she might be addicted to shoplifting also! This has went on for years! I have been sick, obsessed, grieving , and miserable. She has a 2 year old I am raising. I am 59. My heart is broken. I love my daughter so much, but the lies, stealing, drugs never end. She has been in and out of jail. Some days I don’t even want to get out of bed. I live in a small town and it is all over posts of her arrests. She still lives here most the time and I know it’s bad. I know it is so unhealthy as we fight constantly. I go to Al a non once a week but still do not feel comfort. I am always tense and waiting for either the phone call or the Police at the door. She just does not function. Stays up all night, no job, loves her child but is no Mother at all. My daughter fights depression, and horrible Anxiety. She has even as a child. I feel guilty I did not give the proper tools for her to be a functioning adult. I lost a niece to drug addiction and am scared everyday my daughter will die. But then I see bloody scars all over her face and the track marks and I think How bad could she feel to do this to herself? I have begged God for years for answers. It has been about 10 years of this. I’m tired very tired. I just want to feel happy , and I feel as though I have a constant black cloud over my head. I do want to say Thank you for this site. I hope people will keep writing.

    • Ronay says:

      When I go to more meetings I get more relief. In my area there are only 2 meetings a week so I also go to open AA meetings. It helps me to keep the focus on me and also to see my situation more honestly.

    • DMc says:

      I lost my niece to alcoholism , my Dad and Brother, stepfather and exhusband had problems I have 29 days sober, I pray for all in the crossfire and go to AA just about everyday to get help from others lining on my sponsor has helped me stay sober and accept my husband currently who is addicted and has lupus, . Send a word to me if you would like to info.

  • Denise says:

    I was involved with a high school lover for over five years, which has been off and on. I was told by his relative he was on drugs but didn’t believe it until i started seeing signs of his use. I was in denial for the past three years and didn’t confront him. I result to praying and seeking God for his deliverance from drugs but his addiction became emotionally draining and I found the strength to walk away from the relationship June 28th of this year. I still miss him and love him with all my heart, but i realize my relationship with him has been dysfunctional, unhealthy, and toxic to say the less for the past five years. No more of the constant mood swings and playing his savior during the many jobs he has loss over the years due to interpersonal conflicts on his job. Not to mention he was a big womanizer with a sense of entitlement. I feel terrible for my part in allowing this years and realize the need to deal with my own insecurities that i allowed myself to result to this behavior. Thanks for the post and I have decided to find a local Al Anon group to attend to help me with my healing process.

  • Violet says:

    I guess the key is to find the strength to let go and move on. I havent the proper words for what our son has put us thru in the last 4 years. He has tried used and abused all the minor drugs Hes 21 and in a lot of trouble. I need to stop trying to fix his situation and just let him sink or swim on his own.
    I just cant relate to his abuse of drugs. So I cannot understand his struggle. He will finally have to figure it out on his own. Ive put my life on hold long enough. I need al-anon.

  • Anonymous says:

    I have been sober for over 40 yrs and made changes to stay that way. My friend that is going to AA and chairs a group felt I needed more counseling and redo my 12 steps; while she does not get that she needs Al-NON or co – dependency counseling to deal with her kids that are in their 40s and she supports their bad decisions – sending money, phones, cigarettes, clothing or whatever to HELP them. I told her at 40 they need to be on their own and taking care of themselves and Al-Non is different perspective than AA but she insists AA/NA is all she needs. I went to Al-non when my business partner went to AA – I learned alot and I walked away from the business cause I was not going to enable his bad choices constantly bailing out his personal and bad business choices. Her son just overdosed again on New Years and had just moved in with her in late October from rehab – he stole her money, debit cards, car and items to sell from the house and she thinks he should come back immediately to help her with chores. He has 2 kids and none of this is looking good as his ex is an alcoholic that binge drinks. ALl I can do is keep reinforcing thast she n his 2 kids need counseling so sad

  • Jamie says:

    How do you handle it when they choose the drug over you, or the drug over the relationship? How do you handle it when they look you square in the eye, take all of their own money and tell you they are going to get high right now because the have a good “deal” and there’s so much stuff going on in their head and they can’t talk about it. How do you manage when they just up and leave…no apology, no looking back…no goodbye…no I Love You. My heart is broken right now but I told him I wanted him gone for 30 days. I didn’t care where he went but he couldn’t stay with me. At the end of 30 days, I told him he can decide…if he wants to continue the relationship with me then we’ll go get help together (him for obvious reasons and myself because I don’t know what I’m doing). This was my condition. If he decided he wanted to continue down this path and destroy his life then he can do it without me. I feel like I said the right things. But I’m aching too much thinking about his leaving with no remorse to go blow coke. In the meantime, I’m going to go to some NA meetings I found at a local church…so I can be prepared if he decides to change.

  • robin shemonsky says:

    To read these words is beyond helpful and truly enlightening. I have been a codependent my entire life, yet never realized my own addiction until now.
    I so see my past mistakes of 50 yrs much clearer then ever before. With an attraction to dysfunction I always believed that it was mistakes I made that they attracted to me, not I to them. But looking at it all with clearer eyes now and so trying to rewire my pattern in life, it is so blatenly obvious it is I that is the addict.
    I thank you so much for writing this and also knowing I’m not alone.
    I am so working hard to learn to love myself and be true to myself for the first time ever.

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