Reader Mailbag – How Can I Help My Ex Who is Struggling...

Reader Mailbag – How Can I Help My Ex Who is Struggling with Drug Addiction?

Mailbag Reader

A reader recently wrote in and said:

Hi Patrick

I would like to ask you if I may some questions about recovery and about how I might help my ex-partner to get better.

He was a heroin addict for 12 years and has been clean (through using Methadone) for 3 or 4 years. I naively (I know – stupid) thought this was a period of his life that was over and would not affect our future. But the ramifications of his addiction are still with him: – he is not yet financially stable and is only really just starting to develop any ‘proper’ friendships – if at all. He spends a lot of time alone and though he does work his job is poorly paid and without prospects.

We started to see each other about a year ago after being childhood friends though I didn’t see him whilst he was using. Things were great for the first 6 months, then around Christmas time he started to withdraw and told me that he was not good enough for me, he would let me down eventually and he could not take the pressure of my family and friends’ ‘expectations’ of him. I told him I understood and that I would then need some space for a while but he would contact me regularly and try to re-establish some kind of relationship. I didn’t feel able to do this at the time but on one or two occasions he would just turn up in places where he knew I was likely to be. He would also react very angrily when he felt he had been slighted – e.g. if I went out socially with mutual friends without him. Sometimes his messages were awful and nasty and I didn’t feel I’d really done anything wrong. Then a few days later he would apologize and be nice and considerate but this rarely lasted long because he is so self-centered and focuses only on himself and his own feelings and within a short while the anger would resurface.

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What I would really like to ask is does an addict ever behave in a ‘normal’ way – even after years in recovery? Our relationship offered him security and happiness yet he was willing to give it up and I do not understand why. It is almost self-destructive. Is that a common thing? I feel that now he may be wallowing in self-pity yet also believe that he has done something heroic, ‘the right thing’ as it were for me. To my mind the right thing was to keep the promises he made and stand by me but he is not capable of that I don’t think. Do ex-addicts often sabotage their own happiness for reasons I don’t understand? Or was he ending the relationship before I did possibly?

Finally I suppose my real question is – how can I best proceed now to help him? Would it be better that I withdraw and allow him the time to feel the ‘pain’ which you identify as the only real way forward in terms of creative recovery? I am not sure I am equipped mentally to deal with his instability and extreme selfishness at the moment but I would like to do the best thing for him if I can, rather than be the thing that sets him back?



There are a lot of questions in there but this sort of question is extremely common for me these days. Believe me when I say that it is very frustrating because I would love to help some of these people on an individual level, but as such I am only able to give general advice based on a small handful of details. So just let me try to address a few of your key points there.

One, you say he has been clean for 3 or 4 years through the use of the Methadone. In my line of work that is a bit of an oxymoron, because many people come to drug rehab for the sole purpose of trying to get off of methadone. That is a very powerful drug all by itself and many people claim that the withdrawal is worse than Heroin. There are other drug therapies out there that do not actually get a person high, but methadone is not really one of them. Methadone is a strong medication that does get people high.

So I am just cautioning you to gain some perspective there. Maybe he was on a super low dose and never really abused the methadone in any way and never got a buzz from it. I sort of doubt that though. Just cautioning you that his 4 years of “clean” time do not really equate to “growth in recovery” time necessarily.

Your second point is that you mention he was willing to throw away the relationship due to the “pressure” of family expectations. I understand perfectly what is going on there and I believe he has a great deal of social anxiety when it comes to family functions and being around your family and whatnot. He has a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety about these situations and the holidays put tremendous pressure on this. He is choosing to avoid this fear. It is all about the fear of dealing with these social situations. He is not trying to “sabotage his own happiness,” instead he is simply avoiding the intense fear and pressure of all that social anxiety. It is easier to avoid it then to face the fear head on and deal with it. I know this because I have been there. He is not intentionally self destructing, what he is doing is trying to run away from his fears.

You want to know if an addict ever behaves in a “normal” way after being in recovery. My short answer to that is “yes,” I believe that we do start behaving more “normal.” I have certainly become more rational, and I used to have the same self destructive behaviors that you are seeing in your ex. I was slowly self destructing, I would let fear dictate my life and avoid the pressures of social anxiety, and I used to wallow in self pity as well.

In recovery, I learned how to start facing those fears head on like rational people do, and I have all but shaken off the last remnants of social anxiety too. I still get nervous but I can make it through situations today. I have also learned how to avoid the internal drama and silly game of self pity. In these ways, I am a lot more “normal” now that I am clean and sober. I no longer self destruct or sabotage my own happiness out of fear. I can face the fears and come out as a stronger person because of it.

That is the growth that occurs in recovery. We change to become stronger people. We face the fears that we used to self medicate over. We stop using drugs and alcohol, then we grow and change and evolve so that our need to self medicate is diminished. Recovery is a healing process.

Now your last question is about what you can do specifically to help him. Here are your options as I see them:

1) Do nothing different, continue on with no changes.

2) Encourage him to get help in an informal way.

3) Organize a formal intervention to try to convince him to get help.

4) Deliberately put distance between the two of you in the hopes that this will push him closer to a decision to get help.

None of those options necessarily jumps out as being the right path in this case.  To be honest I do not think that any of them will have a huge impact on your ex at this point in time.  I believe he has to find his own path to recovery and come to this decision on his own.

Putting some distance in the relationship may or may not really help push him closer to that; this all depends on how much the two of  you are still involved.  To be honest, I had a similar situation in my life, and some distance with my partner and the resulting isolation helped me in the week before I made the decision to get clean and sober.

Not a lot of clear answers there, but hopefully it helps in some way……Good luck.

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