Addiction Recovery & the Negative Effects of Not Letting Go

Posted on January 28th, 2010

Addiction recovery is a long and involved process for all concerned – not just the addict. But whether you are the addict in recovery, or the family members, friends or co-workers, one thing is certain: there’s no point in continually focusing on the bad memories. That just clouds the situation and makes healing for everyone that much harder. What are some of the consequences of not letting go? Read on.

Cumulative Effect

When you pile up every memory of things that went wrong, how you were hurt, how you hurt others, what you lost (emotionally, physically, financially, socially, legally, etc.), and so on, it’s a little like adding too much weight to a cart or over packing the trunk. At some point, you’ll overtax the system and it will break, unable to carry the burden. Bad memories are like that – they’re just too much weight to bear. The fact that you allow them to accumulate means they aren’t being dealt with. They’re going to remain in your consciousness (or the back of your mind, if you’ve shoved them out of your immediate thoughts) until you do, all the while creating even more problems than you want or need.

Physical Consequences

Stress-related physical conditions are one of the most immediate effects of not letting go of what’s troubling you. You’re overworked, trying to deal with the mountain of bills caused by the addict (or you, if you are the addict). You find that you can’t sleep through the night. You lose your appetite and start shedding pounds at a precipitous (and unwanted) rate. Your appearance starts to suffer. You have migraine and other headaches, physical aches and pains, and are prone to coughs, colds, and infections.

Some individuals that do not deal with all the bad thoughts in their minds develop serious or chronic diseases. Hypertension, heart attack and stroke, and some types of cancer can be caused by continuous and unresolved stress, a process known as stacking. Muscle tension in the form of stiff neck, shoulders and lower back pain can often be traced to stress. Ulcers and rheumatoid arthritis are two more physical conditions that can result from unresolved stress – or not dealing with your troubling thoughts.

Emotional Consequences

Plagued by worry and insecurity, you constantly run negative scenarios through your mind.

• What if I lose my home, my personal possessions?
• What if I can’t pay my bills and my car is repossessed?
• How can I trust the addict, my spouse/significant other/child/sibling/parent/family member/friend – the person in whom I’ve invested so much time, energy, devotion and love?
• What will become of our/my children? How will I ever be able to face our/my friends again?
The result of all this emotional turmoil can be devastating. Suddenly, you find you don’t trust anyone, not the addict, or yourself.
You may resort to snooping, following the individual, going through his or her belongings, reading their mail or other correspondence, calling strange phone numbers that appear on the monthly home or cell phone bill.

It doesn’t matter what type of addiction is present, whether it’s for alcohol, street or prescription drugs, compulsive sexual activity, compulsive gambling, compulsive spending, even overwork – once your emotional roller-coaster gets moving, it’s hard to stop. One thing is certain: if you keep up the pace, you’ll either wind up in a wreck or fly off the rails, figuratively speaking.

Not Being Good Enough

Of all the bricks we can throw at ourselves, one of the most painful is the negative thought that we are just not good enough. Again, it’s irrelevant whether you are the addict or the spouse/partner/family member/friend who has such thoughts. What happens is that you will do and say anything to make yourself more worthy in the eyes of the other. But whatever you try doesn’t seem good enough. Somehow, all you do is fail. You can see it in his or her eyes, that wordless accusation, the turning away.

What happens next? You beat yourself up even more for your failure to live up to the expectations you think the other person has – or, perhaps has already verbalized. None of this is constructive. All of it is more demonstration of the negative effects of not letting go.

Being Drawn to the Wrong People

All this negative energy that’s self-directed has other consequences as well. Not only are we unable to move on when we’re consumed with the train-wreck of our thoughts, but we find ourselves drawn to exactly the wrong types of people. It may feel comfortable to surround ourselves with people that seem familiar, that seem just like us, but ask yourself what it is about that person or persons that makes you want to be around them?

If you are a co-dependent – the enabler of an addict, you are likely drawn to others who mirror the most significant relationships in your background – those of your parents. That’s probably what made you find the connection in your current relationship with the addict.

Or, if you are the addict who has trouble letting go of all those negative thoughts, you most likely chose someone who will allow you to continue in your self-destructive behavior. In either case, the relationships you choose are not healthy. Whether you are the addict or the loved one/friend, etc. of the addict, you need to select healthier relationships. One way to do that is to concentrate first on healing you.

Of course, if you are married to the individual, this doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to walk away from the relationship – at least, not immediately. What you eventually decide to do should be based on mutual agreement, and a choice that’s in the best interest of both. Letting go of the past – especially a past strewn with the litter of poor choices – can be incredibly difficult and painful for everyone involved.

Reinforcement of Negative Behavior

Let’s take a scenario that may or may not seem familiar. It is, however, illustrative of the negative effects of not letting go.
A woman, we’ll call her Barbara, has been married to Phil for 20 years. They have two teenage children, a girl, 17, and a boy, 14. Phil has been an alcoholic for most of his adult life (he’s now 45). Barbara is 40, now overweight by about 30 pounds, a non-stop smoker and habitual complainer. Phil recently lost his job due to his alcoholism. Now, the couple has no health insurance for the family, and Barbara needs a hip replacement. In pain, she’s been downing street drugs her daughter got from a boyfriend, and is now hooked on the painkillers. Adding to the misery, Barbara caught Phil cheating on her with a neighbor and good friend. Phil swears he won’t see the woman again, but Barbara is convinced that Phil’s been unfaithful for many years, citing unexplained expenses, strange phone numbers and long absences from home. Their children hear explosive arguments, sometimes resulting in physical violence. The daughter has been smoking marijuana for the past two years as the tension at home has gotten increasingly worse. Furthermore, she thinks she may be pregnant, since she’s had unprotected sex with her boyfriend and has missed her last two periods. The son has started failing in school, is becoming a loner, and sneaks his sister’s joints from her purse.

This family is clearly in crisis. None of them are attending to the mountain of baggage that their actions have piled up in their minds. They each blame the other for their troubles. Phil’s alcoholism was enabled by Barbara, who compensated by overeating. Once she suspected (and then knew about) Phil’s infidelity, Barbara’s rage boiled over. She took illegal drugs even though she knew it was dangerous and against the law. She blames Phil for the family’s dire financial circumstances, along with her own emotional state. The children, seeing the mess of their parents’ lives, have begun a downward spiral of their own. Thus, negative thoughts and actions have perpetuated and spilled over into a reinforcement of the negative behavior. Until all these family members get professional help and/or start attending counseling or 12-step self-help groups, the situation will continue to get worse.

Helpful Strategies for Letting Go

How, then, do you let go of all those negative thoughts running through your mind? Here are some strategies that may prove helpful.

• Get Professional Counseling – By talking with a professional therapist, you can discover the underlying reasons for your current state. Whether you are the addict or the loved one, counseling can help you unravel the twisted labyrinth of tormented thoughts that keep you from moving forward with your life. If finances are a problem, or you don’t have insurance, look for sliding-scale or pay-as-you-go or free counseling, available through various federal, state and local agencies. Group counseling will also help you sort through these difficult and painful thoughts.

• Join a 12-Step or Self-Help Group – Recognizing that others are in the same or similar situation can be a tremendous help in your effort to put those negative thoughts behind you. Look up the 12-step group in your area that corresponds to the addictive behavior that you or someone in your family has. These groups are called fellowships in that they are comprised of individuals, like yourself, who have admitted they have an addiction (or are the co-dependents or family members of one who is an addict), and come together for the sole purpose of helping others in recovery. There are no dues, and no other requirements than to genuinely want to live a life free of drugs or alcohol or sex or gambling – or help those whom you love to do so and retain or strengthen the bond of family unity and love.

• Volunteer to Help Others – Perhaps a self-help group is not for you – at least not at the present time. You do, however, need to get outside your own troubles, even your own family, to help others. This can be in the form of volunteering your time at a hospice or assisted living home, at a center for developmentally challenged children, an orphanage, the Boy or Girl Scouts, your children’s school, or your church or synagogue. Organize bake sales to raise money for your child’s school trip or equipment for the sports team. Work for a telethon for Easter Seals, or other charitable organization. The point is to start small. Make it something manageable that you know you can do. Don’t think too far beyond just getting started at this point. It will become easier once you get involved. You will be amazed at how good it will make you feel to contribute your time to helping others.

• Make a List – We all make lists: to-do lists, grocery lists, shopping for clothes lists, and so on. Here’s another idea for your list-making. Take a piece of paper and draw a vertical line down the center. Write down all the bad things that are clouding your mind on the left side of the line. On the right-hand side, write down the way you want to feel. For example, let’s say that you hate the fact that you drink yourself into a blackout every Friday. That’s on the left-hand side. On the right-hand side, you want to feel proud of yourself that you will stop drinking completely. Here’s another example. On the left-hand side, you blame your spouse for the family’s financial ruin, but you can’t bring yourself to discuss it with him/her or to seek any outside help. On the right-hand side, list being financially solvent again. Keep on listing everything that you can think of. Don’t worry if you don’t have a positive result that you hope to attain. That can always be added later. In addition, don’t worry if you get stuck after only a few negative items. You can add more as you think of them. What should you do after you’ve compiled your list? See the next suggestion.

• Work on Solutions – You have to have a plan to achieve the results you desire. Maybe that means taking a class in balancing the family budget or getting or changing a job to help out. Search out organizations that may be able to provide assistance with counseling, child care, addiction treatment or other resources. If you don’t have a solution, work with a counselor to come up with one. Use the Internet to find 12-step organizations and download or order some of their helpful brochures or books that deal with the subject.

• Keep Working at it – Nothing happens overnight. Your current situation developed over time, months and years of failing to pay attention to the negative accumulation of thoughts and behaviors. Similarly, overcoming all that negative baggage will take some time. But it can be done. Take it one day at a time. Keep working at it. Have faith and confidence that you can let all of that negative energy go.

Is such a thing really possible? Can you really reverse the downward spiral that’s been the consequence of years of neglect of what really counts? You definitely can. Don’t try to go it alone, however. Why should you? There are others out there who have been in your shoes and are ready and eager to help. Let them. Look forward to your future – free of the blast from the past.

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