Living with addiction can be a stressful, topsy-turvy experience, where the abnormal becomes normal and everyone loses sight of what healthy behaviour looks like. Partners tip-toe around the addict, trying not to rock the boat - unfortunately their well-meaning attempts to help often can often make the problem worse. A common outcome for children living with substance using parents is that roles are reversed and they become the parents, caring for the adults instead of being cared for.
Addiction is paradoxical - attempts to help can exacerbate it, and the problem is denied, not just by addicts and alcoholics, but by their loved ones too. It’s a condition that’s difficult to understand or put right; it creates havoc and destroys lives - this results in stigma which increases the vicious circle of shame and guilt. Families begin living a double life, hiding the problem from friends and relatives. Secrets and anxiety build up and fear and financial strain begin to take their toll.
One of the most crucial elements in how we deal with the anxiety, stress and trauma caused by difficult situations is dependent on our coping strategies. The more we can identify what is helpful and what is not helpful, what works and what does not work, the more resilient we will become in the long term.
Anxiety, stress and trauma all have the capacity to stop us from functioning. Coping strategies give us the opportunity to take responsibility in difficult situations by either:
• changing the nature of the situation being experienced e.g. taking ‘time out’ or
• changing the way we respond e.g. setting a boundary.
Boundaries are limits, dividing lines, separations between different territories. They are the limits we set in relationships to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed or manipulated by others. They make it possible for us to separate our thoughts and feelings from those of others, and to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do.
Think of a tennis court – we have control of our side of the court, right up to the net, but we can’t jump over the net (the boundary) and control what happens on the other side.
Healthy boundaries allow us to get close to others when it is appropriate and to maintain our distance when we might be harmed by getting too close. Good boundaries can also help us respect other people’s boundaries.
In relationships emotional boundaries allow us to:-
• Maintain a clear, stronger sense of our own identity/feelings/needs.
• Protect our space physically and emotionally.
• Stop us from being taken advantage of and allow us to look after ourselves.
• Clarify what is acceptable and what is not.
Some boundaries, however, need to be rigid - because:
• No-one deserves to be treated abusively.
• No-one deserves to be lied to or betrayed.
• We all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
Other boundaries may change with different situations and can be flexible as well as healthy, for instance boundaries vary between loved ones, friends and strangers.
When setting firm boundaries you have to let go of the outcome and be clear about what you need and what the consequences will be if the other person continues with unacceptable behaviour. You will need to be realistic and mean what you say to carry it through - there have to be consequences for actions.