No matter how wise I think I am about other people, I can feel clueless about myself. Someone called me once, at her wit's end, because her daughter was doing the crazy, angry, help-me-it's-your-fault-give-me-money-or-I-die thing. I had been supporting this lady over an entirely different health matter but what she needed on this call was immediate and intense help with how to cope with her daughter's out of control drug habit. She wasn't supposed to have my number but we had realised very early on that in the background we both had addiction problems in our family. I gave her my number for this reason, and because other people had been so kind to me when I was overwhelmed at the beginning of my own journey. I knew how helpful it was for her to have a no holds barred conversation about a loved one's addiction, because I have been where that lady was. It was crisis time for her to recognise the depth of the problem, how she was going to protect herself, how she was going to detach with love. I repeated one of the Al Anon pieces of advice given to me when I needed it - do not cause a crisis, but do not get in the way of one if one is naturally occurring. I knew how bad she felt about not being able to help or protect her daughter. I knew that awful helplessness in the face of drug and alcohol fuelled self pity, drama and manipulation. This lady had called me was because she knew I knew about the handicap, as it can be, of loving an addict. Her story is my story. It may be your story too. Our phone call gave her permission to love and be ruthless and be safe. It is not easy. It doesn't feel like love at all, because love is kind and gentle and saves the world. It feels like rejection, cruelty, selfishness bordering on sociopathy, and it feels like everything a Mum should never do. But it worked for her that day, and she was able to put herself in a place of safety, detach with love, and make herself a priority for once.
Here I am today then, in a muddle myself, wanting someone to come in, be a grown up and take it all away. There has been so much disruption and madness with drink and drugs this past week, and when it is in my family, when I am the mother who has to rethink her idea of love in a split second or go under, I can't remember any of the things I have learned about how to survive it. I have had to call on other people to help me remember what is real and what is not, and to breathe, and to not be afraid. I had to do what that lady did when she called me. Thank goodness we all have each other.
I want to talk about love. It is this in all its different layers and manifestations, in its abundance and in its absence, that makes everything so complicated. If I had no love for anyone, it would be so easy. I could dismiss everything that got in my way and have no feelings about it at all except possible satisfaction. If I had no love for myself, I would fall prey to everyone and anyone who said something nice to me, and blame myself when it went belly up. So having no love is not a good thing. Over-loving is as messy as under-loving. If I love too much, I misunderstand the idea of love and think that I should give it all to everyone without limit. Without boundaries. When it goes belly up I blame myself again, and carry on with my warped idea of love (which always goes out, and never comes in) until I am a pale shadow of a person with no will of my own left to save me.
We have to learn what kind of love works for us. How to do it, what version is going to work best for the person giving and the person receiving. It is easy to love the lovable, and very hard to love the unloveable. When challenged, in an emergency or when the chips are down, our idea of love can become tangled with other emotions like guilt, sentiment, anger, control and punishment to name a few. Love is meant to be uplifting and purifying, but so often isn't. It is painful and confusing and we need help to work it all out. Do I love, or don't I? Is this how love behaves? Am I loving enough? Am I loving correctly? Is it my fault that my love is not working? Am I to blame? Is my love not good enough?
Over the last few days I have expressed tough love. I have done this a few times now and it is never easy. The first times I put it in place I did so as a last resort to protect myself from addiction behaviour that threatened to stop me functioning at all. It was then, and is now, so hard. It feels like abject failure to turn my back on all the crazy that is trying to pull me in, because the crazy is so powerfully painful and I need to make it better. The addict is in meltdown acting out all their pain, fear, illness, trauma and rage; I am watching someone out of control with mental, physical and spiritual agony but whatever it is that they are begging, shouting, crying and demanding I do, I ignore. I walk away. I turn off my phone, I do not take calls, I ignore all the calls from the emergency services and I will not engage. No, I say, this is not for me and I must put myself in a safe space and keep myself there. And then I ask myself , "How is that love?"
I cannot love you until I love me. My own love, for me, has to survive all the sabotage and cruelty that I put in its way. It is an ongoing struggle to love myself, especially when tested by the extreme distress and drama of someone who I am supposed to keep safe and love forever, kicking off. If I have worked on my own self love I will know what I can do and what I can't do for someone else. My self love has weathered its own storms of self doubt and self loathing. Of course it has. We all have messages on a loop in our heads that insist that we are unworthy, ugly and failed. Self love tries to address that narrative and limit the damage by consciously choosing another one. I am worthy, I am beautiful, I have done well. I have also learned that giving into sentimental self love is OK sometimes but mostly leads to self indulgence and superficial relief. If my go-to self love tactic every time I am distressed is to eat cream buns, watch Bugs Bunny on a loop and lie on the sofa, and this is my only response, I may feel instant comfort and distraction but I will end up fat, spotty and a bit emotionally stunted. It is when I am challenged by myself, in loving myself, that I learn to persevere and keep on trying to believe that I am worth it. I end up learning to love me even when I feel lost, frightened and unloveable. It is good training for dealing with someone else's crazy when they are demanding the impossible. When they demand to be saved from situations in which they put themselves time and time again, with no self awareness and no intention of not doing it again, I discern that the love I need to access is not the love they think they want.
How is this not love?
Here is tough love. I do not play the game any more. I will not dance this dance. I step out of the madness leaving the addict to cope without me. If mere words worked, then we could have talked about it. Words have not worked yet and it has been years. If diving into the crisis helped, I would only have had to do it a couple of times, but the crises continue. My love becomes weak and confused and I no longer know what to do if I enter the fray. I get ill, the addict gets worse, I feel responsible and the addict continues to take without a conscience and maintains the story that I am in fact, responsible. Nothing changes for the addict except that when I am truly under and far too crushed to continue, they need to find a new source of attention and money. That is not love. That is abuse.
I have to remember to step away and focus on myself, keep trying to learn compassion, love and respect for me. I put myself in a place of safety and I learn from all the stuff I have done and failed to do up until now. I learn to be kind to myself and I learn how others have coped and I share my experiences. All this is done so that I can see clearly that my addict is doing the addict thing and I need to toughen up so that when, if, I can help and support, I am strong and experienced enough to do it. Love can be soft and kind, it can be gentle and insightful and save the world. It can also be powerful, robust, challenging and tough. It can be boundaried and it can say No. True love does not shut down, it strengthens, challenges and demands truth from the person working with it. It keeps an eye open for a chink in the armour of addiction and prepares to go in to do what it can however many times may be needed without getting lost because it can retreat as well as advance. And if nothing else works, I heard a wise man say once, and nothing we say is being heard, the last thing we can be to those around us, is a good example.
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