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Compassion can help partners cope with loved ones’ addictions

"When Your Partner Has an Addiction," (BenBella Books, October 4, 2016), by Christopher Kennedy Lawford and Beverly Angelo

Society has a habit of viewing any particular illness first as shame and then as triumph. Not too long ago cancer was something families hid — you didn’t even tell your friends you had the Big C and certainly didn’t mention it in the inevitable obituary.

Now people are survivors, not victims, and pose for billboards crowing about their victory over the disease. The two facts are not unrelated — you can’t cure something that nobody can admit is happening.

Addiction is following the same path. What was once — and to some still is — seen as a personal failing, weakness and sin is increasingly recognized as disease, a complex mix of genetic, biological, social and psychological pathology scything through society.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford | SUPPLIED PHOTO
Christopher Kennedy Lawford | SUPPLIED PHOTO

Twenty years ago heroin was what happened to inner-city junkies who could be comfortably ignored. Now it afflicts suburban teenagers and society sits up and takes notice in a way it never did before.

Part of the process of dragging addiction into the light is expanding the circle of sympathy for people it affects. There is the addict, or alcoholic, of course. But then the ring of harm expands outward to include family and friends, who cope with the situation, or more likely, don’t cope with it. In some ways they’re in a tougher position; the addict at least has the brief refuge of using. For families, the pain can be unremitting, and they need all the help they can get.

Christopher Kennedy Lawford, author of best-selling books on recovery such as “Symptoms of Withdrawal and Moments of Clarity,” has joined up with family therapist Beverly Engel, an expert on abuse, to write “When Your Partner Has An Addiction: How Compassion Can Transform Your Relationship (And Heal You Both in the Process).”

That’s a big promise to pack into the title of a book, and I was interested both to read it and talk with Lawford, who came through town last week promoting its publication.

The standard model for families of alcoholics and addicts comes from Al-Anon, which is a kind of junior auxiliary of Alcoholics Anonymous. Family members are taught to withdraw, focus on their own lives, and not be sucked into the endless drama, the cycles of remorse and relapse that constitute living for those who are slaves to substances.

Lawford offers a new spin on that.

“The typical advice given to partners of those suffering from an addiction is to either end the relationship or stop trying to change the addict and accept him the way he is,” Lawford writes. “This book offers you a third option, becoming your partner’s supporter or collaborator as he makes changes for himself. We want to let you know that you can, in fact, help your loved one to change.”

What Lawford calls compassion sounded to me a lot like enabling — fluffing the pillow for your addict partner to fall back on. I asked him about that.

“It is a fine line, and probably a line that’s difficult to hold,” he said. “What this book is meant to do is provoke people, provoke conversation. The difference between enabling and compassionate partnering is, in compassionate partnering you have a plan.”

That plan was the second qualm I had about the book. To me, it undersells the complicated knot of love and duty that bind wives and husbands to their addicted spouses. It downplays the difficulty, frequent hopelessness and horror of their situations.

“Yeah, it does,” Lawford agreed. “We pay some service to that, you have the freedom to leave. But this is meant for folks who don’t want to leave. I can’t tell you, given the situation, I can’t help you. This is a book meant for people, very early on.”

Fair enough. And to that degree it might be useful. It isn’t so much that I disagree with Lawford’s premise that addiction stems from trauma — the son of John F. Kennedy’s sister, Patricia, and the British actor Peter Lawford, he blames the shock of his uncles’ assassination and his parents’ bitter divorce for his addiction.

“I had friends trying to get me to use LSD in seventh grade,” he said. “I grew up with an ethic of trying to do good in the world, and I said no. Then my Uncle bobby was shot. Next fall they asked me again and I said sure.”

Even were that the cause, I question the utility of focusing on it. Lots of people endure trauma and don’t become addicts, and so pointing to trauma seems almost an excuse. The science isn’t there and, really, what does the cause matter? The past is far less significant than what you’re going to do now about the present to try to form a future.

The good news is that this most difficult of afflictions isn’t made more complicated by shame. It is, Lawford agrees, a discussion people are increasingly willing to have.

“I’ve been doing this publicly for 11 years as an advocate, and I’ve seen a major shift in society,” he said. It isn’t that the problem is new — “there’s always been an epidemic” — but people are more willing to talk about it. “I’m really encouraged by what I see in the world today.”

If you are trying to cope with a loved one’s addiction, “When Your Partner Has An Addiction” is a book as straightforward and unadorned as its title, and it offers strategies and insights that might help.

Neil Steinberg is a columnist at the Sun-Times and author, along with Sara Bader, of “Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery.”