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For the friends and family members of someone struggle with addiction, life can become exasperating. Husbands and spouses return home from work to find their partner intoxicated, or watch as a once-vibrant, successful person descends into a black cloud of self-destruction. Millions of people struggle vicariously with the devastating effects of substance abuse in close personal relationships, and millions more are forced to sit on the sidelines and watch as acquaintances, casual friends, or co-workers slowly destroy their lives.
In a painfully common scenario, you have already confronted your friend or family member about the impact of their substance abuse and voiced your concern. You may even believe your words of earnest care and compassion were helpful—until you are faced with the reality that they weren’t as more money goes missing, another DUI or possession arrest happens, or a concerned employer calls to deliver bad news. Although many well-intentioned people possess a strong desire to help, they do not possess the right tools necessary to be effective when dealing with someone battling a chronic, relapsing disease. Learning how to effectively deal with a loved one’s addiction requires some counterintuitive and even surprising techniques—all of which can be perfected with practice.
Friends and family members who try to intervene in an escalating drug or alcohol problem may be shocked by the reaction they encounter. They may even face physical violence, emotional threats, or total withdrawal from the relationship by the confronted party. But as doctors, psychologists, social workers, and other mental health professionals around the world can attest, until your loved one is ready to admit that they have a problem and seek help, nothing anyone can say or do will change their mind. Your first priority as the friend or family member of a person struggling with addiction should be to deeply accept this fact.
For many people, this is a difficult reality to accept, but it can be made easier by role reversal. By looking back on your life, you will invariably find a number of occasions in which someone tried to help you or intervene in a problematic situation only to find that you rejected their help or showed resistance in some way. You will realize that, although you may not have been struggling with addiction specifically, you were equally stubborn and resistant. This should help ease your psychological and emotional burden in trying to help while you patiently wait for a more appropriate time to take action.
THE NECESSITY OF SELF-CARE
It is easy to forget that self-care is the foundation upon which all other successful relationships and good things are built. If you ever hope to be successful in helping your friend or family member heal, self-care is an absolute necessity. Some people fall into a pattern of guilt and self-blame when they focus exclusively on themselves, but in the context of helping a loved one face addiction, it is exactly the opposite. By focusing on self-care and attending to your own needs, you will be better able to shoulder the extra burden that always accompanies helping someone struggling with addiction to find the help they need.
Maintaining a strong social support network, eating a healthy, nutritious diet, and getting sufficient exercise and sleep are all primary pillars of optimal self-care. Exploring recreational activities, hobbies, and developing a stronger sense of spirituality are also excellent ways to ensure self-love and care while giving you the mental, physical, and emotional tools needed to face the upcoming battle of helping your loved one face their addiction.
Naturally, one of the immediate consequences of self-care is arousing the jealousy or resentment of your addicted family member or friend. They may envy your time away or feel deeply insecure about the recent changes they are noticing. When this happens, honest communication is always the best solution. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), al-anon, and other valuable addiction support systems are all traditions based on rigorous honesty, and they encourage transparency—especially in close relationships. The following suggestions can help you broach the topic of self-care:
- Choose an appropriate time—although it may seem obvious, people are more receptive to hearing potentially upsetting information when they are well-rested and alert. Whether or not your partner has slept, recently eaten, or is naturally a morning or night person all influence how well-received your communication is. Also, never broach the topic of self-care while your loved one is intoxicated.
- Involve others—one particularly effective approach involves including your loved one’s friends or family members in a casual discussion—in the context of a recreational activity or leisure outing. The presence of a well-chosen third party can not only serve as a buffer, but also positively impact the tone and outcome of the discussion. In fact, some family members and loved ones of those struggling with addiction only experience positive results in the context of an open, inclusive setting with another family member, loved one or friend.
There is an inexorable link between addictive behavior and enablement. In fact, the pathological behaviors associated with addiction depend upon enablement for their continued survival. Although friends and family members may incorrectly feel that they are being helpful by loaning money to an alcoholic or drug addict, bailing them out of jail, making excuses for their irresponsible behavior, or catering to their increasingly selfish demands, they are actually eroding the very foundation of sobriety—self-responsibility. For some individuals struggling with addiction, the dire necessity of seeking help becomes apparent only when they hit rock bottom, and the “kindness” of friends and family members suddenly vanishes. In such cases, the affected individual realizes the destructive impact of codependence and enablement on their condition and finds the inner willpower and motivation necessary to make a radical change.
EDUCATIONAL AND SUPPORT SERVICES
Fortunately, there is no shortage of help for those suffering from addiction in the 21st century. More public and private resource are available to help than ever before, and many free options and federally and/or state-funded alternatives exist. In the early stages of addiction, friends and family members of someone struggling with addiction frequently realize that their loved one is unwilling to seek professional treatment, at least at that time. In such cases, self-education becomes paramount, as does seeking the help of additional support services.
If you are not educated about the nature of your loved one’s addiction, the simple fact remains that there is only so much you can do to help. For example, addiction to cocaine or prescription opiates may follow an entirely different pattern than late stage-alcoholism. By educating yourself on the specifics related to your loved one’s drug, or drugs of choice, you will be much better equipped to help when the time comes. In the meantime, the following organizations provide effective, reliable support services to friends and family members of those suffering from addiction to popular substances:
- Adult Children of Alcoholics
A wide range of 12-step support groups also exist for the family members and friends of those suffering from addiction, and many are listed in on-line or local directories connected to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). In the digital era, there are more web-based educational programs and opportunities than ever before, and almost any city or town will have a local network of addiction support services geared toward helping and, ultimately, empowering, family members and friends. No one can legitimately hide behind the outdated excuse of “I just can’t seem to find any help or support,” and there are an impressive variety of options available to anyone willing to take the right steps.
Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease that benefits most from early intervention and professional treatment. If someone you love is struggling with addiction, call a substance abuse professional today. Treatment delayed is often treatment lost, and no one should have to live with the lifelong regret that accompanies failure to try and seek help for their loved one.
For more about addiction and recovery, check out these related articles:
- “How to Help an Addict”
- “What if the Intervention Fails?”
- “The Complete Guide to Drug and Alcohol Intervention”
- “What to Ask an Interventionist to Find the Best One for Your Situation”
Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses. Harm Reduction: Compassionate Care Of Persons With Addictions. Nov, 2013.
Addiction Science in Clinical Practice. Managing Addiction as a Chronic Condition. Dec, 2007.
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Journal of Health and Social Policy. The Impact of Substance Use Disorders of Families and Children: From Theory to Practice. July, 2013.
Addictive Behaviors Reports. Do addicts have free will? An empirical approach to a vexing question. June, 2017.