What Can You Do If a Family Member Has an Addiction?
Facing an addiction is a scary time, especially if the person suffering is a loved one. You are worried about their health and safety, how their addiction will impact your family, if you will be able to make payments if they lose their job, or if they will ever be able to overcome their illness. Perhaps you are worried for your safety or your kids’ safety. You might also be worried that if you approach them and try to talk about the problem that they will lash out, refuse to acknowledge it, or completely cut you out of their life. You love them and want to help, but have no idea where to start.
Early identification of an addiction makes it easier to treat it. Many people suffering from an addiction do not seek help for their illness. This might be because they are unaware of how bad it has gotten, they are ashamed, or they fear legal, employment, or familial repercussions if their illness becomes public knowledge. However, without help, your loved ones might get arrested, have a medical emergency, loose their job, cause themselves or the family some form of public embarrassment. They could even end up killing themselves before you have the chance to help them. Early identification can also help you deal with the problems you yourself might be suffering from. Partners of people suffering from an addiction often experience high levels of stress, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. Their children might develop social behavior problems, poor academic performance, or addiction issues of their own. Early identification makes it easier to begin to educate yourself about your loved ones addiction and how you can help them.
The most important thing to remember when approaching someone suffering from an addiction is to not overreact. Many people might not even realize their habits have developed into an addiction. Approach them in a hostile or aggressive manner will only push them away and make it harder for them to seek help. Take some time before you talk to your loved one to educate yourself on addiction and the effects it has on an individual and their family. There are a wide variety of resources available for free online where you can educate yourself about the signs of an addiction, about the various substances out there, and the treatment options in your area.
Once you’ve taken the time to educate yourself, observe the person you are worried about to see if their behavior is indicative of an addiction. If you notice that it is, talk to other members of your family to see if they have noticed the changes and see if they would be willing to help you. It might also be helpful to contact a medical professional who specializes in addiction treatment to get their advice about how to approach your loved one. Remember, before you approach them, to ensure that everyone in your household is safe from physical and emotional harm. If you fear there is a risk of physical violence, create a safety plan to get yourself and your loved ones out of the situation.
As you begin to figure out how you are going to approach your loved one suffering from an addiction, remember to be compassionate. Do not shame or criticize them or imply that they are responsible for their addiction. Recognize that addiction is not a character flaw or a choice. It is a disease. Being compassionate to their plight strengthens the bonds of trust between you and your loved one. These bonds of trust go a long way to ensure successful long-term recovery. Using verbal and physical encouragement helps your loved to know they have support and that you are proud of them for taking steps to get better. As you encourage them to seek treatment, try to understand what external factors in their life are triggers for their addiction. Talk to them to see if there are stressors that can be mitigated, or if they might be suffering from another mental illness. Many people suffering from a mental illness use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and end up developing an addiction if their underlying illness is not treated.
If you decide to approach your loved one about their addiction, take time to make sure you can have a conversation with them. You do not want to lecture or nag them, as it might make them defensive and unwilling to address their problem. Before you start your conversation, make sure you both are sober. Start by telling them that you are concerned for them because you have noticed changes in their behavior, and then list the changes you have noticed. Use open ended questions to ensure that it is conversation and not a lecture. Do not speculate or judge their motives. If they refuse to acknowledge that they have a problem, accept their answer, and bring it up later. The goal is not to forcibly convince them that there is a problem, but that you are worried about them because you care. There is a chance that your loved one has never thought of their habits as problematic or dangerous to their health and safety. One way to get them to realize that they might have a problem is to ask them if they can cut back on their use of the substance. If they realize they are unable to cut back, they might begin to realize they have a problem and need to seek help. Keep in mind there is no quick fix, and that you need to be prepared for stay in their treatment for the long haul.
If your loved one decides to seek treatment for their addiction, expect difficulties. The process is not easy, and many people will be resistant to starting treatment because of the shame and stigma associated with it. There is also a risk of relapse. However, it is important not to focus on it, and instead give your loved one encouragement for the progress they have made so far. At the same time, you want to set boundaries and make rules aimed at ensuring your loved one stays with their treatment plan. Be prepared to enforce these rules and learn to say no. You want to keep your loved one safe, but at the same time they need to be held accountable for their actions and face the consequences. Many people will not seek treatment until they face some sort of consequence for their actions, like a DUI, injury, or loss of employment.
On this note, it is important to avoid enabling your loved one’s behaviors. For example, if they are suffering from an addiction to alcohol, you might be tempted to pick them up from parties, bars, social events, etc. to ensure they do not drink and drive. While this is acceptable on occasion, if you constantly are picking them up while they are intoxicated, they will assume they can continue their behavior because you will always be there to get them. This not only enables their behavior, but wears down on you as you are unable to live your life as you wish. Studies have shown that people are more likely to seek treatment if they are forced to face the consequences of their actions associated with their addiction. Similarly, do not give into manipulation from your loved one. They will employ every tactic, like lying and guilt trips, to continue their behavior. Make sure you are aware of these tactics, and remain firm in saying no.
As your loved one begins their treatment, it is very important that you also take time to care for yourself. Find hobbies that bring you joy, and look into an exercise regimen to give yourself an endorphin boost during this difficult period. Join support groups for family members of people in an addiction treatment. You might even want to seek counseling or therapy for yourself to keep a check on your own mental health. Remember a family member’s addiction affects you too and there is nothing wrong with seeking help. If you do seek counseling or therapy for yourself, it is very important that you do not violate your loved one’s privacy. Talk to them before you start your sessions to see what they are comfortable with you discussing with your therapist.
Many treatment programs encourage family involvement throughout the process. Having family involved lets your loved one know that they have a support system that will be there for them when things get rough. Continue to communicate with your loved one throughout their treatment, whether through phone calls, emails, or old-fashioned letters. Find the communication method that works best for you. Attend family therapy sessions offered through your loved one’s treatment center. These sessions allow you to express your feelings in a safe space and show your support. Never reveal what was said in these sessions, and do not push your loved one for details about their private sessions or their treatment process. Once your loved one returns home, encourage family meals as a way to connect with each other and reinforce support and love for one another. Continue to show and vocalize your trust in their ability to overcome their illness, but also be aware if they begin to slip back into old habits. Remember long-term recovery from addiction is process that takes time, effort, and continued support. With your love and support, your loved one can overcome their addiction.