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April 2012 / Bronx/​Riverdale Family / Brooklyn Family / Long Island Family / Manhattan Family / Queens Family / Staten Island Family / Columnists / Our Relationships

He’s high, and you’re feeling low

We can all be sympathetic to someone falling into the addiction trap. Back in the 1960s, when I was growing up, exploring states of altered consciousness was a common rite of passage. This hasn’t changed. When I speak to young men and women these days, many acknowledge smoking weed for pleasure, using uppers to help meet work or school demands, stimulants for pleasure, drinking to help relax, and using downers to calm down and sleep. This often works fine when there’s only one’s self to answer to and current goals are being met.

But, obviously, as life became more serious and demanding, including a committed relationship, the beginning of a career, and even kids, the goal is to get the use of drugs and drink responsibly reduced and under control.

The lucky ones can do this, but we all know people who never fully get their lives back. Sometimes it happens within our own family; I watched my father succumb to the fatal curse of drink and become lost to us, and ultimately lost to himself. If we have the personal experience of watching a life get ruined by this problem — and many of us do — we know it’s something that can’t afford to be ignored. It’s one complicated problem that usually needs support and help from others in order to be thought through.

It’s not uncommon to see couples in counseling where one partner is overdoing, or is even addicted to, drugs or alcohol, and the other doesn’t want to deal with these behaviors anymore. According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, anxiety and depression are the culprits behind addiction; apparently, according to the study, when these almost-universal emotions hit, men tend to turn to drugs and drink to cope, while women find other ways of dealing. So, although it’s not universal, the talk in this column will be as though it’s the man who’s the addict.

The first hurdle to overcome with addiction is denial. It’s often clear to a partner that there is an abuse issue that’s negatively affecting her man’s life, but the guy may talk as though it’s not really a serious problem. He may say that his getting high is just for fun or relaxation, something under his control that he can change anytime he wants, a temporary way of dealing with a hard time at work, or that it’s his partner’s problem, because she’s overly uptight. With denial, there’s not much problem-solving that can occur, since, according to him, there is no problem. Fighting about the issue won’t get anywhere either, because she’ll be trying to prove that there’s an abuse problem, and he’ll be defending himself, telling her that she’s wrong.

At these times, probably the best she can do is calmly say that, whether she’s right or wrong, she doesn’t know if she wants this kind of life, and will have to think about what to do. Going to an Al-Anon meeting — a fellowship of relatives and friends of alcoholics who share their experiences, strength, and hope in order to solve their problems — can help her learn how to stay removed from the abuser’s issues, so that fighting and anger within the relationship don’t become his rationale for having to use substances to calm down.

In other couples, there is an openness about issues with drugs or drink, and there can be collaboration for a plan for the guy to start to sober up. Ideally, he will stop using the substance, and will even go into treatment if the weaning-off process involves potentially dangerous physical or psychological reactions. When such a big problem-solving change occurs, both partners feel proud and relieved, and ideally commit to a life without drug or drink addiction.

This is also the time to talk about what to do if the problem returns, since life teaches us that relapse is part of the process of becoming sober. Sometimes, a couple might even experience that, as time passes, alternating periods of abstention, moderation, and relapse seem to be the rule. When this pattern can be documented, it’s proof that moderate use just doesn’t work. It’s sad to observe his efforts to enjoy only a couple of drinks — like the rest of us — slowly inch up to the old overuse pattern, and watch him realize that total sobriety is the only option.

These are some of the hardest couple’s issues to deal with, especially since, in spite of his drug and drink problems, this is probably, in essence, a lovable guy who can be depended on in many ways. Yet, if he is in denial about addiction, or unwilling or unable to find ways to permanently master the dependence battle, life with him is destined to be painful, unpredictable, limited, and lonely.

His partner must seriously think about her own, and her family’s, future in the face of problems like these, and, with what she learns from Al-Anon and other support services, present her needs and bottom line if she is to continue in the relationship. This is, in effect, an ultimatum, and should never be stated before she’s had the time and experience to make sure she means it and is prepared to follow through. My sister, brother, and I have no idea of the outcome, but often talk about our regrets that our mom wasn’t able to take that stand.

To find an Al-Anon meeting, visit www.al-anon.org/meetings/meeting.html.

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