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How Do You Help a Loved One Who is Struggling With Addiction?

Having a spouse, a child, or a loved one that is struggling with addiction can be one of the hardest trials you ever face in life. Unlike having a family member that is faced with a ‘typical’ disease, those close to an addict often struggle with the belief that their loved one has the capacity to change their harmful habits, but won’t. The stigma that addicts are ‘bad’, ‘selfish’, and intentionally destructive must change. Like a typical disease (such as diabetes or asthma), addiction is not a choice, and if not properly managed, may be fatal. Unlike a typical disease, the symptoms of addiction often go unnoticed until someone has reached the latter stages of the affliction. Addicts must also face the stigma that they are purposefully engaging in harmful behaviors by their own choice. And while there is some truth to that, you must also realize that most addicts would not choose the isolating, often disastrous path of addiction for themselves. It is only after they have started to follow the steps of recovery that they discover the significant impact their actions under the influence have made on themselves and those close to them. For a parent, spouse, child or sibling- the actions an addict may take while in the throes of addiction may be devastating. Many addicts make choices they never would while sober- often ignoring the safety and well being of themselves and those closest to them. It can be devastating and bewildering to see someone that you love continue to disappoint and hurt you. At times, it may seem impossible to maintain your relationship with this individual- no matter how much you love them. But there is hope for you, and them. Addiction is an often misunderstood affliction, and can be incredibly difficult to navigate, especially when it is affecting someone you love. There are many common misconceptions about addiction that lead to even more turmoil and conflict within families, even when you believe you have someone’s best interest at heart. But by better understanding the nature of addiction and the role you can play in helping your loved one, you can begin to truly make a difference- in their life, and your own. Here are some common mistakes we make when dealing with a loved one who is an addict: Demanding they change. It is easy to believe that, if someone loves you, they will change. This may be true of some innocuous habits, but nearly impossible for an addict. Yes, your husband, wife, or daughter may be truly remorseful the morning after doing something terrible while high or intoxicated. They may be sincerely apologetic, and swear to never drink or abuse substances again. And truly, they probably mean this. No one wants to hurt their loved ones, especially those that have stuck next to them through their addiction struggles. But unfortunately demanding change almost never works. Some individuals may be capable of quitting purely through self-will, but the lure of addiction is almost impossibly strong. We absolutely want to yell and scream and guilt our loved ones into changing- it is a natural instinct. But it will not help that person make a meaningful change. It is extremely difficult for someone who has loved and nurtured a relationship for years (such as a parent) to understand how anyone could choose drugs over their family or children. For those who are not addicts, it is almost impossible to grasp the siren song of addiction. The urge to fulfill that need is stronger than we can imagine, often stronger than the individual who is trying to ignore it. That is why it is essential that these individuals surround themselves with a supportive and understanding network- such as a recovery center or local 12 Step program. Guilt and anger may get the person in the door, but they must find the support tools they need to make a lasting and life-long change. Unfortunately, these techniques often just drive our loved ones further away, and may even drive them to the very thing you are trying to keep them from. Believing addiction is a choice. Who would chose to give up their lives for addiction? Many addicts lose the things they cherish the most (their families, kids, careers, even homes) for the sake of addiction. They may have periods where they lose sight totally of their previously established morals, beliefs, and priorities. If you see your loved one doing things you never believed they would- this does not mean that all hope is lost. It does mean that they are facing a period where addiction has started to interfere with their everyday life- a sign that they are in need of help. Though you may be disappointed with their choices, they most likely need your support more now than ever before. They may not understand the harm their choices are making now or the consequences they will need to face- but one day, they will. Believing you can make them change. We want to believe that our relationship with someone can withstand anything, and make anything possible. And in times of recovery, your love and support is absolutely instrumental. They may not be able to achieve a life-long and successful recovery without you. But you cannot make them change. This is perhaps the hardest and harshest reality someone must face when they love an addict. And you may not believe this, which is ok. But once you accept this truth, it will change the guilt and responsibility you carry in your heart and on your shoulders about your place in their addiction struggles. You cannot make someone not be an addict. However, you can help them get the help they need. An addict will deny that they are an addict for as long as possible. It may only be when they reach their proverbial ‘rock bottom’ that you can step in and have some influence on making this change. And you may not know what their rock bottom truly is. For some, it may be a (non-lethal) overdose. For others, it may be losing their job. Some, their children, or spouse. For some, they may need even longer. Many people seeking help find themselves homeless and destitute before they truly understand how drugs or alcohol are affecting their lives. If you are around for this experience, that is the best time to approach them about getting help. Don’t demand- if they have reached their rock bottom, they will begin to see what a devastating effect drugs are having on them. Suggest that it is time for a change, and come prepared with an available option- such as a detox center, treatment program, or sober living facility. You will probably be met with resistance, but this will plant a seed for change. Putting their needs before your own. Again, one of the most common errors we make when trying to help our loved ones is making their problem our problem, and putting their needs before our own. Addiction is an inherently selfish disease, and many of the ‘poor’ choices an addict makes is to help ensure that they will be able to maintain their habit. During these times, they are putting their need to use before the needs of others- at precisely the time that their loved ones tend to put their desire to help them above their own needs. While we should do our best to help those we love struggling with addiction, it is essential that during these times, we focus on our own health and well being. This is especially true for spouses who have children to care for, as those children will be primarily reliant on the non-addicted parent during this time. Attend a local Al-Anon meeting, or find a counselor who can help you navigate this difficult time. Often, we let the addict in our lives become our number one priority- and our jobs, finances, and emotional well being can suffer greatly. Remember that you are your number one priority- and if you are not emotionally and physically healthy, you can not help the person you love who is suffering. Like they suggest during an airline emergency- we must put out own oxygen mask on before we are able to help someone else put on theirs. Believing your loved one can ‘learn’ how to use or drink like everyone else. The cure for addiction is abstinence. Once someone is able to separate themselves from that which is harming them, they must stop using it entirely. There is often a common misconception that someone who struggles with addiction can ‘learn’ to drink responsibly, or do drugs recreationally. But this is unfortunately not the case. The sad truth is that an addict must abstain entirely from these substances to maintain their sobriety. Even if you do not have an issue with a specific substance, the expectation is that you must refrain from using all substances (or alcohol), to avoid back into your old pattern of addictive behavior. It is important to be aware of this- so once your loved one is in recovery, you can help them stay there. Believing they can do it on their own. For some, addiction can be properly maintained through dedication and conviction. But for most, access to a stable support group or treat