If your loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol, you want to help. That’s true whether they’ve recently started abusing alcohol or another substance to cope with stress or if they have a long-term history of substance abuse and relapse. 1 in 2 Americans has a family member with a drug or alcohol problem – and that makes sense, considering 40.3 million adult Americans have a drug or alcohol problem. That means most of us have to live with, set boundaries for, and try to help our loved ones who often have significant mental and behavioral health problems.
Unfortunately, most of us have little idea of what addiction is, how it works, or why it works. Social perceptions lead us to believe things that aren’t’ true, emotions get in the way, and misguided historical approaches like tough love can cause us to do more harm than good. Chances are, if your loved one has a drug or alcohol use disorder, you’ve made a mistake with them. Learning to identify those mistakes can help you to avoid those mistakes, to take different steps, and to more actively participate in trying to help.
Most addicts are well aware that people are judging them. They are often painfully aware of social stigma that says that addiction is a choice, that it is a personal weakness, and that is them failing themselves and their families. Addicts use layers of self-denial, manipulation, and even lying to themselves to maintain a sense of self-esteem around that. They survive it by pushing people away.
Sharing that stigma and judgement in their direction is asking to be pushed away. The thing is, no one chooses to become an addict. Sure, they make bad choices. Things build up and get out of control. But, no one deliberately opts into it. Your loved one is responsible for their actions but it is important to remember they are in the same position as someone who jumped out of window and broke their leg – they can’t get up and they can’t recover without help. Judging them for the bad decision now doesn’t help. Instead, it creates a pattern of negative reinforcement, where that person will push you away and continue using.
If you can treat your loved one like they are sick, tell them that, and avoid using personal blame and judgement, you’ll already go a long way towards building the trust needed to get your loved one into treatment.
Often, we feel the stigma of substance abuse as much as our loved ones do. You might find yourself hiding your loved one’s problem, lying about their behavior, investing them being sick? If you find yourself thinking about what the neighbors, your friends, or other family members will think, you’re making a mistake. Why? That stigma shows. And, it shows your loved one that you care more about what other people think than about their health. It also shows your loved one that you’re willing to lie for them, to stretch the truth or to hide things for them. You’re willing to enable their substance use.
If you have to lie for your loved one, you’re making a mistake. You should take an approach of honesty, unless you’re worried that your loved one might go to jail or lose their job, in which case you should sit down and discuss those reasons with your loved one.
Most of us know very little about addiction or how it actually works. Most of us know little about it other than popular rhetoric, most of which is actually wrong. Taking time to learn about addiction as a behavioral disorder can be good for you and for your loved one. Most importantly, you can do so by reading books like An Addict in the Family by Beverly Conyers, attending Al-Anon meetings, or even going to local crisis centers for information.
It’s easy to try to take responsibility for someone else’s problems. It’s also easy to blame yourself. That allows you to put yourself in the shoes of someone who can help – because they are responsible. The thing is, you’re not responsible. Your loved one has to take accountability for their own actions and their own recovery. Nothing you do, except providing support and helping them into treatment, will get them there. Your loved one has to agree that they are responsible for the decisions that led them to where they are and that they want to change. And, as long as you try to do that for them, they don’t have to.
Tough love doesn’t work. But, it’s still extremely popular. The idea is the mistaken one that your loved one needs to hit rock bottom in order to realize the error of their ways and to put themselves in a position to recover. The issue is that those people are almost never in a position to recover. Without friends, family, and loved ones, they have no motivation to do anything but drink or use. Rock bottom becomes a permanent state. And, without a home or safety, tough love can put your loved one in real danger.
At the same time, you do need boundaries. You have to draw a line between what’s okay and what you can deal with and what you can’t. You have to know when you stop investing in them and start investing in yourself. Setting lines for comfort, for your own mental health, and for your own financial safety are important. Good boundaries can take many forms. For example, “You won’t use or drink with others in the house”, “you wont’ steal money or use money intended for rent”, “you will do your part around the house and do your portion of the chores”, etc.
Unfortunately, boundaries need repercussions if your loved one doesn’t follow them. If you’re going to have a boundary, you have to follow up. Otherwise, it’s just a request and chances are, your loved one won’t follow through.
If you use an ultimatum or have a repercussion and don’t follow through, your loved one will never respect it again. That might be leaving the house for a week if they mess up, it might be asking them to leave, it might be calling the police, it might be separating your bank accounts. Whatever the ultimatum is, if you say it, you have to follow through after you do so.
Anytime you make a decision for or around your loved one, you should tell them why. For example, if they ask you for money, you can tell them why. If you refuse to bail them out of jail, tell them why. Your loved one needs to know that you care about them and letting them know the reasoning behind your decision-making can be immensely helpful to that. For example, “I can’t lend you money because I’m afraid you’ll use it to hurt yourself with drugs” is a lot more clear and direct than “no, you’ll use it for drugs”. Communicate your motivations, the reasoning behind why you are doing or saying things and allow that to guide your relationship with them.
No one wants to enable their loved one to drink or use drugs. Unfortunately, many of us do. Whether you’re paying their bills, picking up their slack, lying to their boss, or even buying their substances doesn’t matter. You’re enabling their continued substance abuse. While that can be significantly difficult to stop if you share a house or a mortgage, it’s important that you try to find a line where you minimally impact whether they can or cannot continue to use drugs or alcohol.
Sharing your life with someone with a drug or alcohol use problem is difficult. It’s also hard on your mental health. It’s important to set time aside for yourself, to get help yourself, and to take breaks from your loved one. Life, after all, isn’t all about them, and that’s another mistake we often make with addicted loved ones.
Hopefully, this guide will help you to avoid some of these mistakes as you work to get your loved one into treatment.