Steps to take when a loved one has an addiction

Posted at 7:50 AM, Oct 19, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-19 10:50:27-04

Addiction is a family disease.  When addiction is present everyone close to the addict suffers.  It is devastating to those who love them to be powerless to help them.

If you have friends or family members with addictions, accepting you need professional help is the first step. Families do not come equipped to deal with the powerful, self-centered, single-mindedness of addiction.  After all, if the family could solve the problem it would be solved.  And in a year where record numbers of promising young adults have died from opiate-related overdoses, your family may need all the help it can get.

"In most situations, loved ones can help 'raise the bottom,' bypassing a great deal of suffering along the way," Psych Central says. "Whether the addict is 'ready' or not, getting involved is an act of love, which can be a powerful force in breaking through addiction."  We now know that seeking professional help early can be the difference between life and death.

Here are some things to do, and not do, should you suspect a friend or family member is suffering from addiction:

Things you shouldn’t do

Try to make them quit:  As devastating as this sounds, it's true. Quitting and abstaining must be their choice and must come from within. Once people have a serious addiction, you cannot control them.  Trying to do so often makes the addiction more intense and you, crazy.

Limit their resources:  While lasting change for an addict comes from within, you do not have to support, financially or emotionally, the addict’s choices.  You can and should tell them, “I will always love you but I won’t give you money or support to remain an addict.”  This is extremely difficult for a parent who is watching their beautiful child become someone they do not know.  As Sarah Munigle, Decision Point’s dedicated family therapist says, “So often setting boundaries and saying no to a loved one seems counter-intuitive to a family dealing with addiction.  Setting strong boundaries actually communicates to your loved one that you have faith in their ability to change.” This is why support groups and professional help are necessary. 

Be deeply involved:  The way to be involved is to work on yourself and your family.  You and your reactions are the only things you can really control.  If your loved one becomes involved in recovery, no amount of hovering, questioning and spying will be make a difference.  Recovery for the addict comes from within.  Recovery for you and the family is letting go.

Give them a pass:  In general, addicts understand natural and logical consequences.  This doesn’t mean they like them!  You must be willing to allow them to have consequences for their actions.  If you set a limit for them, enforce it, no matter what.  Setting a limit, then backing down will be interpreted as you not meaning what you say and is tantamount to accepting addictive behavior again.  When parents and friends give in they are, literally, “loving the addict to death.”



Things you should do

Get educated:  Get the facts about addiction from a professional in the field.  The more you know, the better you are equipped to be a positive resource in your loved one’s recovery.

Get support for yourself and family members:   Addicts learn very quickly how to manipulate you and your family into giving them what they want.  Families often think they must not talk about or admit that addiction is an issue for them.  Addiction thrives in silence and in the dark and affects the most those who think they must “go it alone.”  That is why it is so important for families to seek support in groups like Al-Anon and PALS.  

Keep your mind open:   You must learn to leave your judgment behind when talking to an addicted loved one.  It is important to be able to talk in a clear, open, non-judgmental way when discussing addiction with addicts.  A simple rule of thumb is to use “I” statements and talk about how you feel and how you have been affected by your loved one’s addiction.  Encourage, support and maintain a relationship of trust, and remember, tell the truth.  No relationship can stand without trust.  Your loved one may not like it, but she will learn to trust what you say.

Be realistic:  Treatment is the beginning of recovery, not the end.  Being educated about an addiction will help you in knowing how and why your loved ones may act, what triggers desires and how to set boundaries in your relationship. Do not allow yourself to be abused or manipulated, and don't assume, once treatment is completed, all will be well forever.  If the addict asks if you trust him, the honest answer would be, “No, but I’d like to.  Trust is going to take time.”  You, your family and your loved one are all participating in a process that is a life-long change in behavior for all of you.

Addiction is a crushing weight to bear for all involved. With professional help for all parties, relief can come for those who are willing.