Mary and Dan have been married for 10 years and for nine of them Dan has been done tried everything in his power to help Mary get and stay sober. He’s driven her to the emergency room, called rehab facilities, participated in the family program at the three recovery programs she’s attended, given her lists of therapists, begged her to go to AA. He prayed that Mary would get clean and sober and then, finally, they would be happy; sobriety would save their marriage.
The fantasy that sobriety is the key to happiness
There’s a common fantasy among family members of addicts that looks something like this:
When my loved one gets sober, everything will be great.
Our home will be peaceful.
We’ll stop arguing.
He’ll stop hitting me and calling me names.
I won’t be riddled with guilt and worry anymore.
There will be money in the bank.
I’ll be able to sleep through the night.
My problems will be solved.
We’ll live happily ever after.
Sobriety is important, but it’s not a magical cure for your personal and relationship problems. Not only is it a fantasy to think sobriety will make you happy, but when you buy into this line of thinking, you give all your power away; your happiness now depends on someone else getting and staying sober. Why are you letting someone else decide if you’re happy? As you know, your loved one may or may not get and stay sober. That is completely out of your control.
Underneath addiction, there’s pain
Sobriety wasn’t the key to the happily ever after that Dan imagined. Dan was so fixated on Mary’s alcoholism and believed that it was the answer to all their problems, but Mary’s drinking was a symptom of many deeper problems.
Initially, Dan felt relieved when Mary reached 90 days sober (the longest stretch since they’d met). But now he feels hurt and angry. When he was busy trying to get her into recovery, he didn’t notice or allow his own feelings to exist. He was so focused, nearly panicked at times, on managing his wife’s drinking and trying to keep her from overdosing, that’s he didn’t let himself think about his own pain.
Now it’s all he can think about: All the times he cleaned up vomit, made excuses for her, took care of the kids and tried to keep them from seeing her wasted, and withstood her verbal abuse. She claims she doesn’t remember most of the demeaning things she said to him. But he remembers and it still hurts.
For years, Dan longed for time for himself. He’s spent the last nine years taking care of everyone except himself and now he doesn’t know what to do with himself; it’s as if he has no purpose, no life of his own. He has trouble relaxing and enjoying free time. He doesn’t trust that Mary will stay sober. After so many years of failed attempts at sobriety, it’s understandable that he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop – always anticipating the worst and still trying to control the outcome. Dan ends up busying himself by micromanaging Mary’s schedule and recovery, which only serves to irritate her.
As you can see from Dan’s example, your loved one getting sober doesn’t solve your problems. While sobriety can be a wonderful opportunity for change, it doesn’t automatically lead to a fairytale ending or even a return to the way things were pre-addiction. Addiction impacts every member of a family and without intentional recovery work by everyone, those patterns will outlast the original addiction because they have been firmly established and well-practiced.
Sobriety isn’t the same as recovery
The other reason that sobriety doesn’t equal happiness is because sobriety isn’t the same as recovery. Unlike Mary, many people don’t get treatment for their addiction. Quitting cold turkey is impressive, but it doesn’t heal the underlying trauma or create any healthier coping skills. Sobriety without recovery is also known as a dry drunk. Without working a recovery program or intensive therapy, people who are addicted will continue in their dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors even when abstaining from drugs and alcohol. Addiction is a symptom, not the root of the problem. So, unless someone struggling with addiction gets treatment for the underlying trauma, they’ll continue to be full of shame, anger, and pain. Treatment also helps people learn the healthy coping skills that they need to deal with life without abusing substances.
Stop waiting and start living
“How long should I wait?” is one the most common questions that people ask me. I understand the pain of feeling like life is out of your control and hoping and praying that your loved one will recover. But there’s no need to wait because your loved one’s sobriety isn’t a magical remedy for all that ails you.
When you put your life on hold and wait for someone else to change, you give away your power. You’re letting someone else determine your quality of life.
You are the only one who can solve your problems
As codependents, we tend to focus on other people’s problems, trying to control and fix them, while neglecting our own inherent power to change and heal ourselves.
The good news is, you don’t have to wait for your loved one to get sober. You can change your life regardless of whether your loved one stays sober and regardless of whether you remain in relationship with this person.
Sometimes it feels easier to use our loved one’s addiction as an excuse for our unhappiness and bitterness. But it’s stressful to try to control people or situations that are out of our control. Our efforts are better spent on things we can control – our own thoughts, behaviors, and choices.
You have the ability to take care of yourself, acknowledge your own feelings and needs, ask for what you want, get to know yourself, and take steps towards achieving your goals. This is the path to peace and contentment.
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©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo of couple via FreeDigitalPhotos.net