Should Families Give Up on an Addict?
When someone in your family has an addiction, life is a maze of hard questions:
- How did this ever happen to us?
- Why won’t my loved one stop drinking/using drugs?
- Is it true that he/she is powerless to stop?
- Could my attempts to help the situation actually be making things worse?
- What would be the best way to really help?
And the hardest question of all: Is my loved one beyond help? The question of when to give up on an addict (or anyone who has a major problem and no interest in solving it) is torture when this is someone you love, and you can’t bear the thought of standing back and letting them destroy themselves.
The answer to when to give up on an addicted person—at least for the time being—is one every individual family must find for themselves. It hinges on the answers to other questions, which we will look at in this article to help you decide what to do.
HAVE YOU TRIED REPEATEDLY TO CONVINCE YOUR LOVED ONE TO CHANGE?
Albert Einstein reportedly said, “The definition of insanity [an inability or stubborn refusal to face up to reality] is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” If it got you nowhere the first 100 times, it’s willful stupidity to think the 101st try will finally work.
That said, it’s not always easy to distinguish between irrational persistence and the potentially effective “try, try again” approach. The primary difference is that the latter approach is making progress—however incremental and hard to measure—while the former approach is simply getting stuck in a rut. Attempts at convincing your family member to give up addiction are probably “insanity” if:
- Your approach is built on nagging, accusations and a focus on your own problems.
- You are regularly answered with “Get off my back” defensiveness.
- You’re contradicting your own “look how bad things are” protests with addiction-enabling behavior: cleaning up your loved one’s messes, lying for them, making excuses for their behavior, giving them money without accountability for its use.
- You are sure that you know exactly what the other party should do, and you aren’t listening to his or her own opinions on what would make things better.
In such cases, it’s not the addict you need to give up on so much as your own approach to the addiction. Which brings us to the next question:
HOW COULD YOU MODIFY YOUR OWN APPROACH TO THE SITUATION?
Much as we’d often like to pin the full blame (and the full responsibility for changing) on one individual, addiction disorder nearly always means the whole family is “sick,” i.e., dysfunctional. Besides active enabling, other family members may contribute to the problem by:
- Labeling each other as “the good kid,” “the troublemaker,” “the problem-solver,” etc.
- Being overly fond of their own labels (it stokes the ego, being “the one who can be counted on to stay out of trouble”) and feeling threatened when the addict or anyone else attempts change to the status quo.
- Running away from family issues through workaholism, self-isolation or extended absences from home.
Before deciding whether to approach the addicted person again or give up on them, take a look at yourself. You don’t have to delve deep (yet) into your motivations and hang-ups, but do consider initial changes that might make your loved one more amenable to seeking treatment.
- What words has he or she typically used in reacting to your previous attempts? Where do these signal hot buttons you need to be more careful about pushing?
- Are you emphasizing primarily your own concerns and how the situation inconveniences you? How could you let your loved one know you’re also concerned for them and want to understand their struggles?
- What do you really know about the issues involved in addiction? Have you been dismissing its medical aspects and thinking in terms of “anyone could just stop drinking if they really wanted to”? (One of the first things anyone should know about addiction is that “just stopping” without medical advice is not only an agonizing experience: it can be physically dangerous and even life-threatening.)
If you’re willing and able to approach with empathy, and to make it clear you are ready to do whatever is needed to genuinely help the situation, don’t give up on your loved one yet. Most people are willing to consider even difficult improvements when they feel someone cares enough to listen, to try to understand.
However, before you go forward alone with the determination to be empathetic this time, ask yourself honestly:
ARE YOU PERSONALLY CAPABLE OF DEALING WITH THE SITUATION?
Many people with addicted family members have psychological “addictions” of their own: to defensiveness, to wanting their own way, to evading personal responsibility. Whatever your intentions, broaching the “you’re an addict” topic may do more harm than good if:
- You can’t maintain emotional control in the heat of a disagreement.
- You’re determined to get one specific outcome on the spot.
- You have any personal issues you feel hopeless about.
In such cases, it rarely matters how determined you start off that this time will be different. In the likely event that your loved one gives you any argument or pushes your buttons, your brain’s programming will trigger the same old emotional reactions, and you’ll find yourself responding in the same old ways. (It’s not all that different from the drug-addiction symptom of repeatedly swearing this was the last time, only to again lose control at the next whiff of wine or twinge of stress.)
If there’s any doubt in your mind that you’ll be able to stay rational and empathetic throughout a confrontation, it’s time to give up. Not on the addict, but on the idea you’ll be able to handle the confrontation alone. Go to the next question:
WHO ELSE IS AVAILABLE TO HELP?
- Family members or mutual close friends you can count on to stay objective in tense situations
- Your loved one’s doctor
- A religious leader or advisor
- A licensed addiction therapist
If you don’t already know at least one person in the “professional” category, find one as soon as possible. You’ll all need professional counseling in any case (more on that in a moment), so you might as well take the first steps right now.
If the addiction problem has existed for any length of time or is related to serious family-dysfunction issues, you may have to go beyond simple confrontation and plan a formal intervention: a carefully organized meeting, complete with objective evidence, to make clear to your loved one that his or her “little problem” is doing major harm. When things are at the “formal intervention needed” stage, you’ll need the help of a professionally trained intervention specialist. And you’ll need to choose carefully whom to involve in the actual intervention: bring only the most stable, understanding, trustworthy people you know.
WHAT WILL BE YOUR NEXT STEP?
The tough question of whether to give up on an addict is best never answered in the affirmative until:
- You’re certain you aren’t giving up for selfish reasons: because it’s “too much work,” because you don’t want to admit your own failings, because you’re seeking an excuse to run to someone else who looks more attractive.
- You’ve given a serious chance to every other option, from changing your own habits to staging a formal intervention.
- Your family member absolutely refuses to admit anything is wrong, or insists that “It’s not my fault, I wouldn’t use if you/my boss/the world treated me better.”
(Of course, if addiction-related behavior is physically endangering you or dependent members of the household, you’d better move out first and consider other aspects of “giving up” once you’re in a safer place.)
If, having considered all the above, you feel you shouldn’t give up on your loved one:
- Before going in for a confrontation or intervention, check out specific treatment centers that could help your family member. Confirm in advance that these centers are available for immediate admission. (If your loved one agrees that he/she needs help, but neither of you has any idea where to go for it, resolve is likely to die before an option can be located.)
- Know what’s involved in detox. This will help both in finding a reputable center and in minimizing your own worries.
- Know what’s involved in long-term recovery. And be fully prepared to do your part, from changing your own habits to attending therapy as a family.
If you feel you have no choice but to give up on an addict:
- Tell them frankly that you’re severing ties/discontinuing financial support/no longer covering for their mistakes, and why. Be prepared in advance to stick to your resolve (you’ll probably need outside accountability here).
- If your family member reacts, immediately or later, by pleading with you to reconsider, don’t be swayed by promises or emotional misgivings. Allowing them “just one more chance” will only land both of you back in the same old pit. At the very least, insist on a period of joint counseling before making any promises.
- Whatever your family member does next, commit to long-term counseling for yourself.
- If possible, get other family members affected by the situation to join you in counseling and mutual support. If other family members continue to enable the addiction, don’t let them sway you through false guilt or appeals to family reputation. Not even if you have to cut ties with other family members and find your personal support
- Remember that “giving up” doesn’t have to be total or forever. There are ways, including prayer, to support people without direct contact. Recovery and reconciliation can come about decades later. So long as there’s life, there’s hope!
- Bierer, Michael (2016, March 11). “Is Addiction a ‘Brain Disease’?” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog//is-addiction-a-brain-disease-201603119260
- Volkow, Nora (2018, March 23). “What Does It Mean When We Call Addiction a Brain Disorder?” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/noras-blog/2018/03/what-does-it-mean-when-we-call-addiction-brain-disorder
- Volkow, Nora D. (2018, July). “How Science Has Revolutionized the Understanding of Drug Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/preface
For further information on how addiction affects personal relationships, see the following articles: