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The Problem is Where You Can't See It

Updated: Sep 9, 2022

February 5, 2020


Have you noticed that a person suffering from addiction is quickly judged, and categorized? People suffering from addictions are labeled as “weak,” “immoral,” ”lazy” or “ungrateful” and dismissed or ignored. The dependent’s family usually labels them the “black sheep,” minimizing them and their problems.


We are not isolated beings; everything that happens to us happens in relation to other people. Instead of judging a person abusing substances, consider that their symptoms are always the result of their social and cultural environment. The substance-dependent are by definition in a dysfunctional system, sometimes behind them in the past, and almost always around them in the present. The motivation to use, and the process of developing an addiction, is three-fold: social, psychological and biological. In recovery, all three must be considered and addressed.


Within the closest social circle of a person abusing substances, you will usually find another who is contributing to their habit. Constantly cleaning up after the person’s social, financial, or physical mistakes. This person appears to be helping, but in reality is just supporting and perpetuating their destructive lifestyle. Are you able to identify that person? They can often be subtle, self-effacing, and difficult to spot. Experts used to refer to them as “co-dependents,” those who ‘loved too much’ and unintentionally harmed more than they helped. Today, that approach is no longer supported; the problem is not ‘too much love,’ but ‘the wrong kind of help.’


The persons you’re looking for is someone who has been trying everything and anything to help, but the problem only gets worse. They care deeply, but feel lost on what to do. This person is not a simple ‘enabler’ or ‘co-dependent’ - they have a strong relationship with a person who is suffering with substance addiction. This is a person who is also suffering, out of a deep desire to help a loved one. They are the crux of the addict’s engagement with the world, and an essential element of successful treatment.


For treatment to be successful, it is essential that the therapist address the relationship between the dependent and their loved ones. Finding and engaging that devoted, caring fellow-sufferer is a crucial step, because their devotion and access to the client provide a therapist with vital treatment resources. Recovery is a hard process that restores a person’s sense of hope, control, and self- fulfillment; it works through the client taking responsibility for their actions and leadership of their lives. Just as importantly, recovery also happens as part of the client’s social system, and that is where it must be sustained. A good therapist will find or develop accomplices in that system. Stopping drug use is not the goal; it is a result of fixing what caused it in the first place, the system and the client’s interactions with others. The problem is not where everyone thinks they see it, but where you can’t see it.


Written by Reylla Santos, PhD, MA, LCPC


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