Living with a loved one caught in the grip of addiction can be terrifying. It’s not uncommon for family members to feel helpless as they watch their loved one sink deeper into the addictive patterns that are slowly destroying their life. Most family members want to help but aren’t sure how to go about it or fear that if they do take action that their efforts might make the situation worse.
While an alcohol or drug rehab program may be the ultimate step toward getting your loved one the help they need to get their life back on track, there are other important steps you can take on that journey:
- Get educated about addictive behavior. When a family member is engaged in addictive behavior, it’s natural to think that your loved one is simply making poor choices. While that’s partially true, it’s important to remember that the very nature of addiction is that it involves a compulsive pattern that’s not easy to break. Addictions typically develop gradually as a way to cope with life situations that seem difficult to manage. For example, a person has a couple of drinks after work each day to cope with the day’s stressors. It works well enough to give them a short-term reprieve from the uptight feeling or anxiety they feel, but as the stress increases so do the number of drinks. Without realizing it, they’re slowly becoming dependent on alcohol to get through the day. A similar scenario could play out for those using elicit or prescription drugs. What starts out as seemingly benign or recreational use of substances can easily evolve into addictive behavior once the person becomes dependent on the substance.Family members can help their loved one caught in addiction by understanding the progressive nature of addiction. To break free from the grasp that addiction has on them, they need to develop new ways of coping with life stresses. They may also need professional help. But instead of judgment, try to express empathy for the struggle while you attempt to support their recovery.
- Be supportive without enabling. Supporting a loved one who’s struggling with addiction in a balanced manner can be tricky. You want to show them you’re behind them and are willing to help, but not to the extent that you enable them to continue in their addictive pattern. The goal to keeping this balance is to draw clear boundary lines. The key to healthy boundaries is determining who’s responsible for specific behaviors.For example, a son recovering from a hangover wants his parents to call his employer and tell them he’s “sick.” The parents show compassion for the son’s condition, but refuse to lie for him. They tell their son that he needs to make the call himself. Furthermore, they tell him that if he continues this pattern of excessive drinking that he’ll have to move out. Their approach is supportive but firm. They’re not enabling their son’s behavior because they’re asking him to take responsibility for that which belongs to him: his health, his relationship with his employer, and his willingness to live as a responsible member of the household. If he chooses not to do these, they allow him to live with the consequences of his choices. But they also clearly communicate where that boundary line is and what it entails.
- Keep your own life balanced. It may seem counterintuitive that keeping your own life in order can help a loved one struggling with an addiction, but it’s true. Addiction affects the entire family. It’s easy for the addictive behaviors of one person to consume most of the time and energy of whole family. So whether the person with the active addiction is getting treatment or not, other family members need to be attentive to how the addiction is affecting them. This might be through having family meetings to discuss how everyone is feeling and ways to respond to the problematic behaviors. Or it might mean getting involved in local support programs like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Alateen or Co-Dependents Anonymous.
- Encourage your loved one to seek help. Although many addicted people refuse to admit it, they do want help. But the downward spiral of addiction and the hopelessness they might feel often makes it unlikely for them to seek out the treatment options that are appropriate and available to them. You can help by doing some research on your own to find treatment options that might fit best with their particular needs. If and when your loved one is open to the possibility of treatment, you can then suggest what you’ve found.A starting point may be a local 12 step group an individual therapist in your area who specializes in substance abuse. These can serve as entry points into treatment that may eventually grow into a more comprehensive approach. Sometimes the thought of going into an intensive or long-term treatment program as the starting point to recovery is overwhelming for the addicted person, which can be a detriment to taking that first step.
- Be involved in the treatment process. Think of addiction treatment as a family affair and not just something that pertains to your loved one with addiction. Addictive patterns often stem from underlying family issues that need to be identified and worked on by all members. If your loved one is ready and willing to begin the process of recovery, they will feel much more supported and involved if each member of the family is going through a similar self-reflective process of change.