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Are You Trying to Rescue an Addict?

Updated on September 30, 2019
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Through her passion for writing and coaching, Rachael shares her experience and support in the journey of loving an addict.

I used to be a rescuer.

It started as a kid when I would bring home small animals I found, hoping to nurture them and restore them to full health so I could love them forever.

Even the dead ones.

In fact there was a mouse that I kept in a box for nearly a week, convinced that I had seen it move, breathe, flicker a whisker. It was only when it started to really smell, that my mother insisted it go in the bin.

As I got older, I moved on to rescuing people. I started with the kids at school who I believed needed me, the outcasts, the odd kids, the kids that no one else would bother with.

I remember being severely reprimanded after I took it upon myself to bless one of these kids in the church, sprinkling holy water over her head as she lay in the isle and instructing her to recite the Our Father and Hail Mary multiple times. I think Father Kevin used the words blasphemy and disrespect but I really thought I was saving her from a fiery end.

As an adult, I continued to rescue. I always seemed to have a thing for the 'doer uppers' the broken ones, the ones who needed work. I put everything I had into saving my partners from themselves, from the world. While also hoping to save myself from heartache because I would be all they ever wanted after I solved all their woes.

When I met my husband I had no idea how deep I was wading in as I, once again went, into rescue mode. It wasn't until I was in the thick of living with his addiction, desperate to escape, that I began to question why I kept ending up in relationships where I was the only one who seemed to be trying to fix what was wrong.

In hindsight I now know why. I was a rescuer.

When we rescue, we over compensate for those we think need our help to survive in life. We protect and shield, we do what we can to prevent them from experiencing discomfort, disappointment, shame or embarrassment. There are times this can be genuinely caring, for example when we protect our children from harm or try to make our loved ones feel better when they are upset, but rescuing can also be damaging when we undermine the opportunities of those we love, to deal with their issues, make their choices and face the consequences instead of trusting that they have the ability to resolve their life's challenges, without us having to save them.

Rescuers often consider themselves big hearted and a lover of helping people but rescuing another person isn't always as altruistic as we lead ourselves to believe. A motivating factor in rescuing is the belief that giving enough love and support will cause the recipient to feel compelled to give the same in return, thus actually being a strategy to fulfill the needs of the rescuer as much as the person they claim to be helping.

And when we focus on rescuing another person, we can also then avoid facing the reality of our own emotions and situations. We can spend our time diving into all the troubles of someone we love, hiding away from the fact that we might be just as broken as they are. But, as Byron Katie says, if you're over there in someone else's business, who's taking care of yours?

Rescuers are likely partners for an addict, given they often gravitate to those they think most need their help and, from the addict's point of view, rescuers are ideal partners because they will always enable.

As well as the forms of enablement mentioned in this post, rescuers also enable in ways that might seem more innocuous like remembering special events such as birthdays and anniversaries for their addict so others don't get offended when they no longer bother, telling their addict over and over again that they're good people, they just need to sort out their drinking/drugs/gambling, to save them from feeling bad about themselves, taking care of all household chores and arrangements so that they don't have the stress of having to think about these things, explaining and making excuses for their addiction to others, so as to try and preserve their character, and assuring they aren't ever left alone, bored or missing out.

Unfortunately an addict is always a taker as long as they are in the grip of addiction and so the rescuer is unlikely to get the fulfilment they most desire from the relationship and will ultimately cause more harm than good to both themselves, and the addict they love.

Rescuing isn't only an unhealthy aspect in a relationship with an addict, it is an unhealthy and emotionally draining way to relate to anybody. As in many aspects of loving an addict, endless energy goes into attempting to rescue our loved one, despite their unwillingness to rescue themselves, and that energy is better spent taking care of our own situations and ourselves until our loved ones demonstrate a real desire to seek recovery, at which point we can genuinely support them.

Each one of us is responsible for our own lives and while we can support and help the people we care about there is a vast difference between supporting and rescuing, enabling or relating in a co-dependent manner.

When we acknowledge our own power and that of those we love, regardless of how little they appear to have through their behaviour and actions, and stop giving ourselves away in the hope of validation, we no longer need to rescue and we make space for fulfilling our own emotional needs, rather than giving all of our energy to trying to fulfil them through others.

Step back into your life and allow others to own theirs. Rescue yourself first and watch as the people you love discover they can save themselves too, if they so choose.


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