Detaching from the Illusion of Control

By Ken Wells - 08/31/2021


Series Two; Blog Sixty

Recovery from addiction requires detachment. The word means to separate, dis-engage, or disunite. Step 3 of the 12-step program admonishes that “we make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Sounds serene and beautiful. Yet, I dare say, more blood and anguish has been shed over this step than any other step of the 12. If detaching could only be about letting go, it would be easier. It’s not that letting go is easy but often detachment is like peeling away control over people, issues, and circumstances as if they were superglued to your body. It is a momentous emotional struggle. It often is anguishing and for many must be done on a daily basis.

Many years ago when I was in early stages of recovery, it was necessary to detach from two people who had been the best friends of my life. The reasons were complicated. The enmeshment to them was extreme. They were family to me. We moved from one state to another to live and be close to each other. Yet, the cathexis between the two families became toxic and threatened the health of both families. On a January morning in 1990, we decided to go our separate ways and we have never connected again from that day to this.

The decision required detachment. I remember spending time in the forest screaming with sadness that I lost the two best friends of my life at that time. It was essential to healing and was one of the worst emotional hurts I have ever suffered. Detaching from these good people felt like ripping the skin from my body. I must say it did propel deeper growth to my recovery and deeper intimacy to my family and self. Looking back, detachment was the only way to free myself from the codependency that dominated my existence at that time.

Cathexis is a word that isn’t used all that often. It refers to the charge of psychic energy so invested between people in relationship. The psychic energy between an alcoholic and a partner and family can be palpable. It contributes to why people don’t know where they stop and another person starts. Some addictive families can appear to be one continuous blob of reactivity to an addict’s behavior. There are no boundaries and everyone is devastated when the addict acts out on h/her cravings.

The answer to healing in relationships of this nature is found in process of detachment. Nothing is more difficult to do than to separate from the addict and disengage a toxic family system. It’s what makes Step 3 so difficult. Addicts must also practice detachment from a dysfunctional relational system if they are to ever establish and maintain long term sobriety. Hard-won sobriety is infectious. It feels good, creates clear-headed thinking, and empowers a new way of living. Yet, it is not sustainable without detachment.

Letting go of what you cannot control is a key building block in the foundation of recovery to establish serenity. You won’t know peace without surrender, letting go and turning it over to your Higher Power. “It” can be your substance or process addiction. It might be your relationship to your non-addicted spouse, your family, your work, and everything else that exists outside of you that you have depended upon for your identity. You must detach without reservation. It will require boundaries with consequences to maintain detachment.

Corrie ten Boom was a holocaust survivor who used to talk about turning life over to God and letting go with fingers spread apart so that you cannot hold onto anything between your fingers. It is a total commitment to detachment that is necessary in order to create priceless serenity.

As you practice detachment and letting go of your need to control people, it enhances all of your relationships. It opens the door to the best possible outcome. It will help you set boundaries with others. It will help you to make the best possible decisions. It helps you to embrace your feelings and to stop reacting. It will help you create a positive course of action in your life. It makes room for others to do the same.

Many addicts relapse and stay stuck in their addictions because they do not know how to detach their identity from their spouse, their work, and other important relationships.

It is possible to detach with love. Yet, whether it is with love or not, detachment is a life raft to addicts stuck in a whirlpool of dysfunctional behaviors from family and loved ones.

Consider the following questions:

  • Who or what do you need to detach from?
  • Identify the fear that you have about what you know it will mean to detach, and share it with a support person.
  • Describe the kind of life you would live if you could detach from your entangled relationship.

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