Help for the Loved Ones of An Addict

When an individual is struggling with addiction, they may be able to hide their behaviors for many months before their friends and family discover the problem, and it may be hard to convince the addict that they need treatment.

A family member may be unable to determine what level of problem exists, preventing them from encouraging treatment options.

Those that live with an addict may face loneliness and hopelessness.

Recently the director of Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addiction gave advice to the loved ones of an addict.

Dr. Howard Shaffer, as part of a series called Special Series on Addiction within Relationships, wrote about one of the most common issues during his 40 years of working in the field of addictive behaviors – how when worried relatives of addicts want to get a loved one help but they don’t know how and then sit by while the spouse or close family member engages in self-destructive behaviors.

Why Is My Loved One Addicted?

In some cases, the person expressing concern is looking for empathy. The loneliness that accompanies watching a loved one suffer from addiction can leave a family member or close friend feeling as if they too are experiencing the addiction.

Dr. Shaffer says that the frequency with which he deals with these types of inquiries illustrates that it is often the loved ones, not the addict, who suffer most severely from addiction. Living day after day with a person that has lost control can consume the quality of life for those looking on.

How Do I Help Them?

While Dr. Shaffer says there’s no foolproof method for getting an addict to begin treatment, when a family member focuses on getting mentally and physically healthy, the results are compelling. An individual struggling with addiction may not respond well to coercion, but they may become curious when their family member appears stable, healthy and positive.

Dr. Shaffer says that the first step for those seeking help for a loved one is to let go of worries about whether the loved one meets criteria for addiction. The danger is that, when a loved one is researching the signs and symptoms of a particular addiction, the problem becomes an intellectual one and does not lead to action.

Instead, he suggests identifying the problem behaviors and how they affect the individual living with the addict. At that point the loved one can create protective boundaries. For example, a spouse of a problem drinker is not obligated to get into a car being driven by someone who’s been drinking.

Dr. Shaffer’s second suggestion is to establish new friends and activities that combat the loneliness of living with an addict. Even when an intoxicated person is in the room, they are not usually emotionally present.

Is Group Therapy a Good Option?

Lastly, he suggests a support group designed to help the loved ones help themselves first. This can also fight the isolation that can accompany living with people with addictive behaviors.

When a loved one attends support group meetings and takes these other steps toward good health, the result is that the loved one gains clarity and strength. When the person struggling with addiction sees the changes in their loved one, they may become curious about how the changes came about. Dr. Shaffer stresses that the response to curiosity should be an invitation to the next meeting so they can see for themselves, rather than sharing confidential information shared during the meetings.

Curiosity and a change in a loved one are much more likely to drive a decision to seek treatment than any type of coercion attempted. Even when the addictive behaviors do not cease, the person attending the support groups can still improve the quality of life for their family.

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