July 8th, 2024

By P. Casey Arrillaga, LCSW, LCDC

Forgiveness is a tricky subject when it comes to addiction and other mental health disorders. This is largely because many difficult and hurtful behaviors and situations arise from these disorders, and it is especially hard to forgive when new hurts keep happening. This makes it difficult for family members and other loved ones of anyone with these disorders to find forgiveness no matter how much they love the person with the disorders. Often, it is even harder for the person with the disorders to forgive themselves. Nonetheless, forgiveness is often a vital part of the recovery process. This blog post looks at how we can find our way to the benefits of forgiveness without putting ourselves in too much danger.

What We Know So Far

Where addiction and other mental health disorders are present, there is usually pain. This is because these disorders manifest as behaviors above all, and we rate someone’s motivations, desires, attitudes, and character based on how they act. Therefore, when someone’s behaviors change drastically, are highly unpredictable, or don’t match what we think they should be, we can feel hurt and even threatened.

This becomes even harder when someone says they will change their ways, says they love us, yet they continue to do hurtful or illogical things. For instance, someone with a substance use disorder may promise to moderate or stop using the substance altogether, then go back to their old patterns. To make matters worse, they may say they have quit, leading the people who love them to feel overjoyed at the apparent change, only to find out later that their loved one has been using the substance in secret. This results in pain from seeing the pattern continue and hopes getting raised and then dashed over and over again. Even worse, there is the additional hurt of the dishonesty around whether the problem is still happening.

Similarly, someone with a bipolar disorder or schizophrenia may go on and off the medications that are meant to curb their symptoms. As a result, behaviors and situations that seem preventable keep happening. They may take on drastic behaviors, some of which may damage or destroy relationships, cause problems for everyone around them, put them in legal jeopardy, and even threaten to end their life. They may similarly lie to those around them about whether they are taking the medications, or they may break commitments to stay on them. All of this can cause hurt and distance in relationships, especially if it happens over and over.

For the people who love someone acting in these ways, it can be a natural protective mechanism to put up emotional walls, set boundaries, and distance themselves. Alternately, they may try to maintain the relationship with the person who has the disorders but go through bouts of anger, lecturing, and pleading. Family members and other loved ones often cycle through hope, anger, and despair. In such circumstances, forgiveness may be offered verbally without the family member having actually come to any peace in the situation. This may be done in hopes that with love and forgiveness, the problem will go away. Sometimes, family members may feel obligated to forgive. This can lead to even greater frustration when the person with the disorders falls back into old behaviors.

What may help move toward genuine forgiveness in all this is recognizing that the person with the disorders often blames themselves most of all for how they see themselves hurt those around them. This may be hidden behind a front of blaming others and self-justification, but underneath all that, guilt and shame are almost universal. Additionally, it can help to see that someone in the grip of addiction or any other mental health disorder often has a host of genetic factors working against them in combination with life experiences and subconscious emotional reactions to them. These disorders invite simplistic explanations and solutions (“They could change if they really wanted to”), but finding recovery is actually one of the hardest things anyone can do. 

Difficult as it may seem to let go of hurt, all of this makes forgiveness all the more vital. This is because forgiveness has been shown to have many benefits that are almost impossible to get without it. Forgiveness leads to greater peace of mind, better relationships, improved mental health, and even better physical health for the person doing the forgiving.

To get these benefits, we may have to get a better understanding of what forgiveness entails. Forgiveness is about letting go of anger and blame so that we can set ourselves free to have peace in our hearts. It often involves no longer taking things so personally. Forgiveness allows us to hold others accountable for their actions, but not do so in anger or fear.

It does not mean we have to put ourselves in further danger. We can still set and hold healthy boundaries based in upholding our safety and values. Forgiveness is not about pretending like nothing hurtful happened or that such things can’t happen in the future. It is about knowing this is true but not taking such things personally.

Thus, for both the person with the disorders and those who care about them, forgiveness of self and others becomes a journey and a practice. It is easy to say but may take a long time to achieve.

How Do We Use This Information Effectively?

At Windmill, we strongly encourage both the people with the disorders and those who love them to engage in forgiveness of self and others. We teach healthy boundaries and help people practice them in a safe environment with lots of support. This happens through our many educational classes, our family workshops, our SMART Recovery Family & Friends meetings, in family sessions, and in individual and group therapy sessions.

We teach our clients and their families how to feel strong and safe within themselves without needing others to change. Instead, we encourage people to keep themselves safe without resorting to anger, blame, and shaming self or others.

No one can guarantee that hurt will not happen in the future. What we can ensure is that we will have the tools to meet it head on without living in fear. On this basis, forgiveness becomes possible.

The Bottom Line

Forgiveness is difficult around addiction and other mental health disorders, largely because we rate ourselves and others, and our safety, based on our own actions and those of the people around us. Thus, forgiveness may be difficult, especially if future danger seems likely. Forgiveness allows us to find more peace in the storm through not taking such actions so personally and seeing we can keep ourselves safe without needing to be angry, blaming, or shaming. In changing these attitudes, we set ourselves free.

About The Author

P. Casey Arrillaga is the Team Leader for Education at Windmill Wellness Ranch, and he is the author of books including “Realistic Hope: The Family Survival Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions”.

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