In the August 13, 2016 Buffalo News, I read about Chris Maloney, a young man in his twenties who had worked to overcome his addiction to opioids.  His family supported him during that time, encouraging him to do everything possible to defeat the disease of addiction.

When he was able to be drug free, they felt that he was on his way to a successful life.  He began to pursue some of his interests, moved to a new location and entered an education program to begin his career.  He and his parents were encouraged by his progress.

Overcoming addiction and developing emotional strength are not the same.

The tragedy of this story, and of many like it, is that overcoming addiction and developing emotional strength are not the same. This young man had overcome his addiction but was not strong enough to move fully into his potential. Moving to a new city, facing educational challenges and dealing with the demands of everyday life overcame him. The steps were too big for him to handle. Just like we would not expect someone after major surgery to go directly into a full exercise program, we cannot expect addicted young people to face all of life’s challenges at once when they are drug free. We need to take the time to build emotional strength.  Sadly, this young man relapsed, overdosed and died. Sadder yet, is the fact that he is one of many.

After addiction, people must build emotional strength

Emotional strength is needed to overcome addiction. However, the strength to deal with daily frustrations, to face challenges, to take responsibility for one’s own life and to deal with complicated social situations is really the “heavy lifting” of living.  For some people, it is the pace or the seeming relentlessness of demands that are the most wearing and tiring. We have to build up the necessary emotional strength to face all these challenges.

It is important for us to develop support systems that have a long-term focus. Emotional strength building takes time. Public policy positions now tend to favor quick fixes and many of the programs and supports we need are not yet widely available. This is a double tragedy for families and those caught in the trap of substance abuse.

Careful goal setting is crucial

For many families, the goal is that their loved one gets “clean.” I agree that that is part of the goal. It is not enough. What our goal should be is that the person becomes able to function in life. This takes longer, many times, than the actual overcoming of addiction. Here is a list of what needs to be learned:

  1. The former user needs to learn to tolerate the stressors that led to the avoidance found in substance abuse. They need to face their own personal “demons.”
  2. They need to learn that there are no easy ways to live. Life is filled with challenges and no shortcuts.
  3. If life’s challenges were one-time events, users and ex-users would be better off. However, life is filled with ongoing challenges—rent needs to be paid each month, cars need numerous repairs. It just goes on and on. Ex-users have to be strong enough to take care of these things over and over.

If someone you know is fighting addiction

  • Remember that emotional strength is the goal.
  • It can be reached, but it takes time. There are no shortcuts.
  • It is important to remember that people can change and grow.
  • But, you cannot do it for them. Just like you cannot help them develop physical strength by going to the gym for them, you cannot help them develop emotional strength. It is their task to do.