How To Detach When Someone You Love Is Self-Destructive

This is my story and I think it’s important to know that there is no magical straight answer on what to do when your loved one is self-destructive, but learning to detach is certainly a great place to start!

I grew up in a family of mostly women. 

My mom was a single mom to me and my sister.  My grandma on my mom’s side was also a single mom, and my cousins were all girls. Growing up, it was clear to me that the role of women was to  be in a caring community with each other. 

Before my parents divorced, life was tumultuous and my mom’s journey with drug abuse began. 

At some point before they officially split, we moved back to Milton, FL from wherever my dad was last stationed in the Air Force to be near family. My grandma pitied what all we’d been exposed to so my sister and I were both sent to the Christian school my cousins attended. 

Additionally, my uncle started taking me to an evangelical Christian church. The messaging was strong and clear that good girls and good women were caretakers, in service to their families, and definitely selfless. 

Girls were to be pretty, sweet, kept in line, and always serving. 

Outwardly, if you looked at my life at the time you might think that I didn’t buy that shit, but it was 100% internalized! 

I was a rebellious teen and partying 20-something. It wasn’t until my sister was seriously taken down by addiction that the panic set in like a terrible hang-over, that if I didn’t save her from herself I wasn’t “good”. I believed that it was my absence, my being detached, that led to her losing control.

I love her so deeply and she has kids, how could I NOT do everything in my power to help her??

If I tried to cut her off, wasn’t that heartless abandonment? There were definitely times that I was so angry with her that I thought, “I’m done, I’m cutting her out!” but my absence felt cruel and once my anger subsided the love for my sister rushed back in, so I was stuck in the chaos. 

I would hear about surrender but it made no sense to me. Surrender either felt like giving up, giving in, or like it somehow didn’t apply. 

Loving an addict is like getting hit by a bus of shame, guilt and powerlessness repeatedly and out of nowhere. You are thrust into a space of codependency yourself, but your addiction is to worry & desperately try to control people and situations because you think your heart exists outside of you.

I started to see how my constant obsessing, worrying, and meddling were all ways that gave me a false sense of control. They all made me feel like I was “doing” something to help. In reality I was driving myself crazy and driving my sister further away. 

I had to surrender the idea that there was anything I could do to stop her from her self-destructive choices. That didn’t mean there wasn’t anything I could do to support her, but trying to control her and the situation was not supportive. I had to detach from the outcome of their situations and learn to live in the moment by letting go.

Accepting my sister and my mom, for that matter, for who they are didn’t mean I was approving of or supporting their lifestyle choices. 

Here are some ways I detached with love:

  1. Work on being less emotionally reactive.
    • I know this is a hard one! But reactivity just adds fuel to the chaos, you end up more frustrated and your loved one easily uses your loss of composure against you. 
  2. Refrain from unsolicited advice.
    • We think we are helping when we give advice but RARELY is this the case. Someone who is self-destructive is not going to listen to your advice, and that will just add to how crazy and frustrated you feel. They may hear you and even agree with you, but they are going to do what they want to do. When they are ready to make changes they will.
  3. Set boundaries with what you’re willing to be around, tolerate, talk about, etc.
    • Figure out your limits and stick to them. If you don’t say what you mean and mean what you say with a self-destructive person you are welcoming in drama & emotional turmoil. Setting boundaries may be hard and even be painful at times, but not setting & enforcing them is even more painful!! 
  4. Let them know you support their healthy decisions and what you CAN do to support them, anything outside of that is off the table.
    • For example, I was not willing to give my sister money for ANYTHING. Not groceries, clothes for the kids, NOTHING. But I was willing to take the kids shopping if they were in need of something for school. They had to try the clothes on and I would cut the tags off immediately so that the clothes couldn’t be returned for drug money. 
    • I wasn’t willing to let my sister live with me, but I was willing to help her find a rehab.
  5. Be clear that it isn’t your job, nor do you have the power to fix another person.
    • Someone who is in a self-destructive time in their life will manipulate your emotions like nobody’s business!! They will tug at your heartstrings and when that doesn’t work, call you names. It is NOT your job to fix them and nor do you have the power to do so because if you did they’d be fixed already. 
  6. Communicate your belief in their ability to cope and get help.
    • It’s important for you to understand why you need to detach. Rescuing someone and doing things for them that they can do or can learn to do for themselves is actually harmful to them. They build confidence, dignity, and skills when they struggle through something. They need to know that you believe in their ability to do hard things! Oftentimes when someone else tells us they believe in us, it kickstarts our willpower. 
  7. And lastly, what really helped me detach was joining a support group & then getting a coach.
    • When I was struggling I didn’t believe that I could afford to get help. I now know that I couldn’t afford not to! BUT in my travels I’ve been an active member of ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics,) Al-Anon, and Codependents Anonymous. 

That last one is crucial!! I underestimated the importance and worth of my own recovery – because I wasn’t the addict.

Being in community with other people who were facing the same type of struggle is what really got me through. Not bitching to my friends or coworkers who didn’t relate and were filled with unsolicited advice. I needed to hear the stories and see others successfully detach from the chaos in their lives.

It was through community that I found the strength to say “no” and mean it. And it was through boundary setting and detaching that my sister finally started to take charge in her life because there was no one else to do it. 

I do recognize that I am lucky.  My sister came out on the other side and now helps others battling addiction. When my sister started making healthier choices and wanted help finding and getting into a rehab, I was there. When she needed help building her life back after incarceration and losing her kids, I was there. 

It is okay to help and support your loved one when the choices are healthy, they ask for it rather than you rushing in to give it, and when you have the resources to spare/share. 

My sister works in a sober living facility and tells me all the time how family members’ over-involvement is often only “helping” the addict into an early grave. 

If you are stuck in a crazy-making cycle with a self-destructive loved one and ready to detach, check out my upcoming workshop!!  At this point, addiction statistics are inescapable. This means without even touching drugs, alcohol, (or other self-destructive ways to escape,) we have all most likely been impacted by someone else’s struggle. 

My sister was an addict, but this shows up in eating disorders, gambling, toxic relationships, poor financial decisions, etc. 

This workshop is a great way to be in community and exercise detachment even for a few hours. Spots are limited but I hope to see you there!!