Loving someone caught in addiction or substance abuse can be devastating. Too often those in this situation focus all their attention on trying to help or get care for the person who’s using and very little (if any) support for themselves. This type of experience can be isolating, shaming and life-altering. These loved ones live their struggle in “hiding” because many in their friend/family circle haven’t lived something similar (and maybe have even said something hurtful when they did reach out). If you have a loved one caught in addiction you may feel alone, scared and don’t know what to do. Here are 8 things you can do when you find yourself in this situation.
1. Don’t blame yourself
One of the most common experiences for a loved one experiencing addiction second-hand (especially parents) is to blame themselves. Playing the “what if I had done this…or why did I do that” game will drive you into a dark lonely place. Nobody’s perfect and certainly we all have moments in relationships where we wish we’d done something different. We can find ourselves stuck when we convince ourselves we could/should have done “something” to have avoided this whole situation. You need to remember that you’re not responsible for someone else’s behavior. Deep down you may know it’s not your fault but you want to find an answer to the ‘why is this happening” and you can’t come up with anything else.
What can make this even more difficult to navigate is that it’s common for someone trapped in addiction (not ready to acknowledge there’s a problem) to blame those around them as a justification/rationalization for their use. Coming to a place where you can hear/see this for what it really is takes time (but it’s possible).
2. Recognize you can’t control them & can’t protect them from themselves
Part of the intense stress and pressure most loved ones feel comes from an instinct to do or say just the right thing so that the individual is safe or makes the right choices. Recognizing that while the person may be making very difficult (and sometimes dangerous) choices, you can’t follow them around or guard them 24/7. It’s common to find yourself walking on eggshells, concerned that if you do the wrong thing you’ll ruin any chance for their change. You can be loving and supportive in a way that can contribute to change (keep reading for more on this) but you can’t control someone. While releasing control can be scary, it is also freeing to recognize your own limitations to fix the problem.
3. Love, but don’t enable (set boundaries)
Are your actions helping to encourage the individual to change their behavior and get help or helping them continue in the destructive pattern they’re on? Sometimes this can be a real challenge to figure out. Are you protecting them from the consequences of their actions? Are you helping them hide their behavior from other friends/family to avoid embarrassment? Are you giving them the money they need to buy more of what is hurting them? You can still love and support someone while also setting appropriate boundaries (in fact, it’s the most loving thing you can do). This can be one of the hardest paths to navigate and getting your own support in this is really important.
4. Don’t get trapped in a debate
When talking with your loved one about their use, focus on the objective, not subjective. ”I think you have a problem” (or some version of this) leads to a debate that probably won’t end in the person seeking change. You’re more likely to hear about how you’re being judgmental, that they’re not as bad as ______, that they used to do even more but now it’s less so it’s not really a problem or they might even give you a list of “rules” that they follow which means they don’t have a problem. Instead, focus on how their behavior is impacting you (objectively). For example “when you drink, you don’t stop until you black out which scares me, you scream at me, you’re spending so much money on _____ that we can’t pay our bills, I’ve had to take you to the hospital” etc. The difference is you’re not providing evidence based on your opinion, you’re just stating factual “this is how it is” information. Will the person still be resistant to hearing you? Maybe, but this approach helps to avoid the “you have a problem” – “no I don’t” routine.
5. Don’t nag
While it is important to share (from a personal perspective) how their behavior is affecting you – less is probably more. A constant barrage of feedback won’t help, if anything you’ll become part of the background noise. You can’t annoy someone into treatment. Again, while we need to be clear about how the behavior and circumstances are impacting us, the point isn’t to shame that person. Statements like “you’re ruining our family reputation” or “I can’t look other people in the eye because you’re screwing up” will not promote healthy, lasting change.
6. Educate yourself
There are a lot of aspects to having a loved one battling addiction or being caught in substance use that you probably didn’t learn in your high school health class. It can seem like there’s a whole different language and culture in the recovery community. In many cases this type of information can be really helpful but in some cases it can seem like a barrier to “entry” into getting help for yourself (and your loved one). There is a TON of information out there. Where do you start? Always choose from a reputable source such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA). Another great “starting point” would be the Addiction and Recovery edition from the popular “…for Dummies” series. It’s pretty comprehensive and provides information in a direct and clear manner.
7. Don’t do this alone
Simply put, you can’t do this by yourself. No one has the energy and emotional reserves to go through this experience solo. You need to surround yourself with a few trusted friends who will support and encourage you. Yes, this means you need to tell them what’s going on and that might be embarrassing, but that’s the reason to find the right people for the job. Having a loved one in this situation can be very isolating and you need help.
While you would likely find support groups like Alanon helpful, there’s also a lot of value in getting your own professional counseling. In my experience, those in this position don’t realize that the potential benefit to getting their own therapeutic help. In their heads they’re often thinking “my only problem is that they won’t stop using, when that stops all will be OK.” The emotional roller coaster and exhaustion that comes from loving someone stuck in addiction cannot be overstated. You need to talk to someone who has training in this area that can come alongside and provide assistance. Get help yourself; it’ll make a world of difference in your day-to-day life.
8. Keep hope
As hard as that might be to believe right now, recovery is possible. Change can happen. Maybe not as soon as we want or in the way we want, but it can happen. It’s a tough balancing act to maintain optimism alongside the reality of the situation, but the world is filled with people who have found meaningful recovery and have amazing success stories.