You love an addict. Now what?

If you have a loved one suffering substance abuse or another form of addiction there are some key things to always remember.

1)      You did NOT do anything to make them an addict

2)      You can NOT do anything to make them not an addict

3)      You can enable their addiction, and this is harmful

4)      Recovery is possible for even the most “hopeless” addict

5)      You need to recover too

Individuals suffering from addiction come in any form. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a family member of an addict say “I can’t believe this happened in our family” or something similar. If you have a loved one who’s addicted to something detrimental to their life, you might feel that you are somehow to blame. Someone in the denial stage of addiction may also try hard to make you feel as if you are to blame, because they are not ready to look at themselves.

Before I go on, I want you to realize that addiction progresses in stages, and so does recovery. If you’re loved on is denying that they have a problem, or denying that their problem is their responsibility, then they are in what some experts call the “precontemplation” stage. This is normal.

No matter what mistakes you feel that you have made as a parent, friend, sibling, caregiver or a romantic partner, you did not do anything that made them an addict. There are countless factors that cause addiction and you are not one of them.

You cannot do anything to make them not an addict. Again, they might want you to think that you have to act a certain way to fix them (and they might truly believe it), but the underlying causes of their addiction whether it’s genetics, PTSD, complex trauma or something else are guiding the progression of their addiction.

Unfortunately, forcing your loved one to go to rehab is almost always ineffective. Even if they complete the program. Someone who’s addicted to substances will not actually recover until they are ready. No matter how much treatment they receive.

Important side note: abstinence is not recovery

So what can you do? You don’t have any control over their addiction, you can only control how you react to it. Giving them money so they don’t have to be in withdrawal, bailing them out of jail, lying to their boss about why they didn’t show up to work, etc. are all examples of ways that you can enable their addiction. You can suggest that they try a 12 step meeting or go to treatment, but what usually gets people to realize that they have a problem are their consequences.

People in withdrawal from opioids or opiates (heroin, fentanyl, OxyContin, Percocet, etc.) will feel like they are dying. But they are not. And they will manipulate you any possible way they can to get money from you so that they can get more of their drug to ease the suffering. This is not because they want to hurt you. It’s because they are in a pain that far exceeds what the average individual has to go through and also because their addictive thinking has taken over their thought process and they have become someone else.

Important side note: With recovery, they will find themselves again, realize what they did, feel terrible about it, and become the person you once knew (maybe even better!)

If he or she is in withdrawal from benzodiazepines or alcohol, it IS life threatening. If they are having seizures, hallucinations, talking in gibberish, shaking or not responding, you need to call an ambulance and get them to the hospital ASAP.

You might be thinking “Well she’s my spouse and we need her income, so I call her boss because I don’t want her to lose her job. That would hurt all of us even more!”

Unfortunately, addiction to substances is a life or death situation. That might not be evident yet, depending on how far their disease has progressed, but it will progress and treatment is necessary. But they have to realize that. It will take a lot longer for the to realize that if you keep cushioning their fall. And you’re right, it’s not fair to you. But if this is the situation at hand, it has to be dealt with sooner or later. Trying to pretend it doesn’t exist will only work for so long. Loved ones of addicts can be in denial too.

No matter how hopeless the situation may seem; maybe they’ve been through treatment 20 times, there is still hope. But you need to recover too. You’ve been hurt, you’ve been burned. You have resentments, anger, pain, questions, confusion, sadness…that’s ok. It’s normal.

I strongly recommend that you find an Al-anon meeting. Al-anon is a free, confidential support group for the family members. It’s not the same as alcoholics anonymous (AA) or narcotics anonymous (NA). Those meetings are geared towards the addict in recovery. Al-anon is a small group of family members who have been through the same struggles as you. The same pain, fear, shame, guilt, and had the same questions as you. The vast majority of family members that I talk to want nothing to do with Al-anon. But the ones that actually give it a chance find a great sense of comfort, relief and understanding in those rooms.

“I can’t believe how many people understand exactly what I’m going through!”

This is the most common reaction I hear after a family member (or friend) goes to an al-anon meeting. You will find support, no one will judge you, and you will have a lot of your questions answered. You will also gain a sense of acceptance when you can’t find the answer.

I personally recommend the book Addiction and Recovery For Dummies for family members of addicts because it really seems to be geared towards helping people to understand addiction who really don’t have previous experience with it in their family or in their life in any way. Basically, it provides a foundation of understanding of what you’re dealing with and what the options are. The main things I want you convey are that there are options, you’re not alone, and there’s hope.

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