It is perfectly natural and normal to love someone who happens to be sick with the disease of addiction. We don’t stop loving someone just because they’re sick.
And, even when a person behaves really badly, it’s understandable that friends and family still love them.
But it’s really horrible – and sad to see – when an addict uses that love to serve their addiction. People will allow themselves to be used and abused in the name of love. Their heart tells them the truth but they still feel compelled to do what, in the end, is wrong. It feels like they are being held hostage by their love.
It’s the most difficult thing to manage in any intimate relationship – to love without being manipulated. To love and still be able to say ‘no’. To love and not be at the service of addiction.
In recovery language, someone who loves an addict is encouraged to ‘detach with love’. But often the detaching feels impossible to do …. ‘how can I be OK when my (son, daughter, spouse, sibling or parent) is so miserable? I can’t stand to see them suffer.”
For a multitude of reasons people take on the belief that love, real love, means that they must climb down into the muck along with the people they love. Even when the misery is self-made people feel compelled to share in it – in the name of love.
But the exact opposite is true.
The truth is, love, real love cannot be held hostage.
Let me explain what I mean with a little help from a book that has become a spiritual classic.
In 1946, C.S. Lewis wrote a fantasy story called The Great Divorce. It’s about a man who, in a dream-like state, travels on a bus to heaven and observes people, who have recently died, face choices about whether to cling to their earthly beliefs, opinions, desires and so on, or let go of them and enter heaven. It’s a marvellous story in every sense of the word. Its most important lesson is that we have to choose – there is always, and everywhere a choice – even about whether or not we will enter heaven. The second important lesson is, once you make your choice, the door closes. We are faced with choices – and their consequences – throughout our lives. And ultimately, one chooses to remain in hell, or surrender into heaven.
I must point out too that Lewis implies that our choices create our heaven or hell here on earth – in our lives in the here and now. Heaven or hell don’t begin only after we die. They are with us in our choices right now, today.
One episode in The Great Divorce speaks to my point – that love cannot be held hostage by misery (misery created by self-pity, shame, addiction and so on).
It centres on a Lady who is Love. She personifies Love and lives in the heavenly realm, surrounded by adoring ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’.
As Lewis explains, when she lived her life on earth: “…every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter. Those on whom her love fell went back to their natural parents loving them more … it was the kind of love that made men not less true, but truer, to their own wives … there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder Lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.”
This remarkable Lady encounters her earthly husband – who has recently died – on the borders of heaven. Their meeting is memorable. She joyfully invites him to join her there, in Heaven. But he, portrayed as a ghostly phantom, refuses – demanding that she come down to him, in his misery, self-pity and resentments. He whines and plays the victim. He tries every trick he knows to get her to join him in his unhappiness and tries to manipulate her into believing that her happiness and joy is a sham. But the Lady refuses to buy in.
Lewis creates a dialogue between them with him listening in:
“Darling” says the Lady, “… you don’t want me to be miserable for misery’s sake. You only think I must have been if I loved you. But if you’ll only wait you’ll see that isn’t so.”
“Love!” says her ghostly husband, …”Love! Do you know the meaning of the word?”
“How should I not?” said the Lady. “I am in love. In love, do you understand? Yes, now I love truly.”
“You mean, … you mean – you did not love me truly in the old days.”
“Only in a poor sort of way,” she answered. “… what we call love down there (in our earthly life) was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you.”
“And now! … Now, you need me no more?”
“But of course not!” said the Lady; and her smile made me wonder how the phantom could refrain from crying out with joy.
“What needs could I have,” she said, “now that I have all? I am full now, not empty. I am in Love Himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak. You shall be the same. Come and see. We shall have no need for one another now; we can begin to love truly.”
Lewis then says: “I do not know that I ever saw anything more terrible than the struggle of that Ghost against joy.”
But the Ghost continues to do his pathetic best to guilt and manipulate the Lady into coming out of Love into his misery. In the end though, he can’t win … and he fades into nothingness – in spite of the Lady’s persistent invitation to join her in happiness and joy – free of emotional blackmail.
“Come to us,” she says, “We will not go to you. Can you really have thought that love and joy would always be at the mercy of frowns and sighs? … I cannot love a lie, I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”
The episode comes to an end with a reflection between Lewis and his Teacher who is with him on this journey:
“And yet . . . and yet … ,” said I to my Teacher, “even now I am not quite sure. Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?”
“Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her? He did it many a day and many a year in their earthly life.”
“Well, no. I suppose I don’t want that.”
“I hardly know. What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.”
“Ye see it does not.”
“I feel in a way that it ought to.”
“That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.”
“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”
“I don’t know what I want.”
“It must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. … The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Anyone may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.”
This is a metaphorical, imaginative way of explaining the meaning of ‘detaching with love’ and ‘setting boundaries’.
Real love cannot be held hostage: I couldn’t put it any better than to repeat Lewis’ words:
“It must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves”.
I know that’s what it feels like sometimes when we are confronted with the disease of addiction in someone we love: that their misery is the ultimate power.
But hopefully we can learn to see that it just isn’t so.<JG><UNDRESSED>