Addiction is a tricky disease. It makes us think that there’s no possible way to recover and, even worse, it can cause us to push people away when we need them most.
If you love someone with addiction, you’ve probably wondered how you can support them. The truth is–when people are in active addiction, they’re often isolated and struggling emotionally. In those moments, they need to know they have your unconditional love and support.
So, how can you show unconditional love to someone who is in the height of their addiction? We sat down with Jen*, who recently celebrated 9 years in recovery, and spoke about her supportive husband, unconditional love, and how we can show up for our loved ones.
As a kid, I was fearless. I wanted to try everything, see everything, and learn everything. I didn’t think anything could hurt me. My mom would ask me, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” And my answer was always, “Yes, I would.”
When I was 21 years old, I was in a bad car accident. Three of my friends and I were driving home from a trip to the lake for Labor Day weekend. Even though it was a sunny morning, my friend who was driving the car fell asleep at the wheel. Our car crossed several lanes of traffic, crossed the median, and flipped several times before landing upside down. Miraculously, we didn’t hit anyone else, but as the car flipped, my head smashed into the window. When the car stopped, I was hanging from my seat belt and my head was bleeding badly, While my friends were able to crawl out of the wreckage, I was trapped inside the car for several hours until the EMT’s on the scene were able to get the right equipment to cut me out of the tangled metal. They rushed me to the hospital and I had several surgeries to repair the damage to my scalp. It was incredibly traumatic, and after the accident I went from someone who was adventurous to someone who was terrified that something bad could happen at any moment.
I coped by pretending that nothing had changed. I went back to college and tried to feel “normal.” But the way I was coping wasn’t normal. I did everything I could to distract myself from thinking about the accident – even for a moment. I doubled my course load, got a job, and went out with friends every night.
Several years later, I moved to Washington, DC for business school. There, I found fantastic friends and a wonderful support network. But even though I was very social, in the back of my mind, I felt constant anxiety that something bad was going to happen.
After I graduated, I took a high-pressure job that demanded a lot from me. I was also planning our wedding and while it was a wonderful time, anyone who has planned a wedding knows that it is also stressful. I was exhausted all the time – and that’s when the chronic pain set in.
Eventually the pain became so extreme that I could barely walk. My life went from feeling so broad and fun-loving, to very narrow. I could hardly stand up to fold laundry. For years, I barely left my house.
There’s a saying: the body always remembers. I think the trauma from my car accident resurfaced during an extremely stressful time in my life. I never stopped, I never took a break, I was always working or planning or doing. My body recognized these familiar coping mechanisms, even though the accident happened years before. It viewed my stress as “danger,” and it kicked in to distract me and keep me safe. And there’s nothing more distracting than excruciating pain.
We’re conditioned to think that pain means we’ve hurt ourselves. I thought I’d injured my knees and back so I had knee surgery and back surgery. Neither surgery relieved my pain so my doctors referred me to a pain management clinic. There, I met with several specialists who assured me that Oxycodone would help and that it was completely safe. They told me I should be on it for the rest of my life, that I could get pregnant while taking it, that it wouldn’t affect my day-to-day life. Most importantly – they told me that it wasn’t addictive. The way they described it made it sound like a miracle drug. And for a while, it was.
Before the pain meds I couldn’t stand up. But now I was able to walk without feeling pain. All of a sudden, I could do anything.
It started with slowly increasing the number of pills I took. I thought, “I’m going to be in pain later, so I might as well take a pill now.” Then, instead of just taking one pill, I took one and a half – and then two.
Addiction looks different for everyone, but my addiction looked a lot like hyper-productivity. That’s how I got away with it for so long. I worked 12-hour days and got promotion after promotion because there wasn’t anyone who was willing to work so many long hours. I always had things turned in on time or early. I was doing well professionally, while at the same time, everything else was crumbling around me.
I never had to use illegal methods to get pills, all of mine were prescribed by doctors. But, I would only be prescribed a months-worth of pills at a time. I would run out by the third week of the month, and I’d spend the last week going through withdrawal. During that week, my chronic pain would come back and I would struggle to walk. But, even though everything was a mess around me, during that week I was able to think clearly. I was able to be more present with my husband, Dave.
I thought that if I stopped taking Oxycodone, I would be in constant pain and wouldn’t be able to walk. But if I kept taking them, I would die. Dave and I both agree I wouldn’t have made it through the year if I had kept using.
There was one particular conversation I had with Dave that changed my life. Dave pulled me aside and said, “Look, we need to talk. This has been going on for a long time, I know how much you’re struggling with this and I really think you need to get help.” In response, I went through my standard laundry list of reasons why I had to keep taking Oxycodone.
And then Dave said, “I didn’t marry you because you can walk. I married you because I love you. I don’t love you less because of what you’re struggling with, I love you more. And I know we can figure this out together. You have my full support.”
I always knew he loved me. But this was so meaningful because I realized he didn’t love me in spite of what I was going through – he loved me more because of what I was going through. In that moment, he accepted my imperfections and embraced them.
I had never experienced unconditional love like that before. At that moment, I realized that he loved me even though he knew I was flawed. He was willing to go into the dark with me even though it was going to be scary and hard. After that conversation, our relationship was completely based on trust, honesty, and open discussion.
When people talk about chronic pain, they usually bring up the pain scale. They say “on a scale between 0-10 (10 being the worst pain you’ve ever experienced), what’s your daily level of pain?” Mine is between 6-7. My back and neck hurt every day.
But what I’ve realized is that my pain isn’t me. I’ve done a lot of work through counseling to separate the physical sensation of pain from suffering. Before, I thought my pain ruled my life. Now, I can acknowledge my pain while still living my life. My focus is on living, and not just on suffering.
If you, or someone you love, stops using opioids, it’s also important to remember that the pain will be at its worst during the first year. When you take opioids, your body sends pain signals to your brain, but the opioids block these signals. So your brain develops different neural pathways for the pain signals to get through. When you stop using, the pain is much worse than it was than before you started using, but this effect will wear off over time. After six months, things will get better. After a year, your chronic pain should level out.
Dave was a huge part of my treatment process. I went to rehab and Dave was with me every step of the way. Once I was out of rehab, he researched AA meetings, and we went to the first one he found. We went to meetings together a lot during the early days of my recovery. That meant so much to me, and it really defined my view of unconditional love.
It’s showing up for somebody in small, consistent ways. It’s doing things that are difficult or inconvenient because you love someone enough to do those things. Unconditional love means more than just talking a big game – it’s in your actions.
In small, ridiculous, everyday ways.
One example actually happened a few days ago, when Dave took me to a doctor's appointment. I’m having surgery soon, which is emotionally difficult for me due to the past surgeries I’ve gone through. When Dave and I showed up for my appointment, my anxiety skyrocketed. I was only in the waiting room for a few minutes before I panicked and had to leave.
When Dave and I returned to our car, instead of being frustrated with me, Dave smiled and said, “Do you want to get coffee?”
I’m a much better partner to him now that I’m in recovery.
When I was in active addiction, David would tell me “You’re here, but you’re not here. You’re not you.” Now, in recovery, I completely understand what he meant by that. Now, I’m fully present in our lives and everything we do together.
To me, unconditional love doesn’t feel hard with him because he’s such a great guy. I just want him to be happy and to give him everything he wants. I want to allow him to be who he is – completely and fully.
The number one thing that we feel today is gratitude for each other. On my anniversary of 9 years in recovery, Dave told me that he still remembered the day he took me to treatment. In that moment, he was so scared and didn’t know what was going to happen. And now, in the blink of an eye, it’s 9 years later. I’m sober, we have 2 beautiful boys, and we’ve been able to build an amazing life together. Today, I’m a grateful recovering addict. And by that I don’t just mean that I’m grateful for my life in recovery. I mean I’m grateful for my addiction, and the struggles we experienced, because they brought us closer together.
*Jen's and her husband Dave's names have been changed for privacy.