How to Show Compassion for an Addicted Loved One – Without Being a Doormat

Posted on February 9th, 2010
Posted in Articles

When there’s an addict in the family, it takes an emotional and sometimes physical toll on everyone. Sure, you want to be understanding. It’s tough enough for the addict to admit he or she has a problem with alcohol or substance abuse, or gambling, compulsive sexual behavior, and eating disorder or overwork. Your loved one may not yet be ready to acknowledge the problem, or isn’t quite able to reach out for help. You’re left to bear the brunt of the addict’s roller coaster of emotional outbursts, as well as the binges, broken promises, missing money, and possible physical violence. While you do want to show compassion, you don’t want to be a doormat. Here are some suggestions.

Assess the Situation

First you need to know how bad the situation is that you have to deal with. Is your loved one newly addicted, or has he or she been a long-time abuser of alcohol, drugs or other addictive substances and behavior? Has he or she ever sought treatment for the addition? How successful was it? Have there been relapses following treatment? Does your loved one attend 12-step support groups on a regular basis? Are you starting with scratch with a loved one who refuses to accept that he or she has a problem at all, let alone seek help for it?

How you answer this will prepare you for the steps you need to take – not only to keep your own sanity, but also to offer encouragement and support (compassion) for your loved one.

Examine your Relationship

Next, what is your relationship with the addict? Are you the spouse, partner or significant other? Are you the parent, sibling, child or other relative? Are you a very close friend? The more intimate the relationship, and the closer in proximity you live with the addict, the more difficult it is to be able to separate yourself from the turmoil that naturally surrounds addicts and those closest to them.

Many families are torn apart by the stresses and strains of addiction. It happens all the time. That doesn’t make it any easier when you’re the one right in the middle of it, however. You need to keep your wits about you. It’s almost as if you have to hold yourself a bit detached in order to show the right amount of compassion without being steamrolled by the addict’s demands and wild mood swings.

What about Money?

Who controls the finances in your family? If it’s you, then you have more control over the situation. If it’s the addict, then you will need additional help to be able to keep your composure, especially when funds disappear to finance the habit.
Let’s say that you are the spouse of the addict, but your husband controls the money. During a time that your husband is sober, you could have a discussion about having separate checking accounts, so that you don’t always have to come to him for spending money to buy things for the house or the children or for entertainment or gifts. You might also offer to take over the bill-paying responsibilities, since this is often very challenging and stressful. Avoid being argumentative or confrontational. When it comes to money, everyone is more than a little touchy. It’s a territorial thing for some or a sign of control for others, being able to provide for the family for the breadwinner – or just personal preference. Some people are better at handling finances than others. If you are one of those individuals, you might comment how you’re always able to get the best bargains, can really stretch a dollar, or are a whiz at budgeting. Construct your argument carefully, so that you can be convincing without being a nag.

Money to pay for addiction treatment is also often very hard to come by. Do some research into sliding-scale or pay-as-you-go treatment options that may be available. There are also scholarships and grants that may be able to cover most, or all, of your loved one’s treatment program. When you look into the various possibilities, make sure to check out hospital outpatient and inpatient treatment facilities, treatment centers, and intensive outpatient seminars. How does this help you show compassion for your loved one? If you’re able to put together a treatment proposal that you can afford, and one that will provide the help your loved one needs, that’s showing love and compassion. It’s also a very proactive thing that you can do.

Tend to Your Own Well-Being

Before you can relate to your loved one’s addiction in the most compassionate manner, you have to first take care of your own well-being. This includes your physical well-being as well as your emotional and psychological well-being. If you’re run down, stressed-out, burned-out, unable to sleep, not eating properly, how can you expect to be anything but short-tempered, irrational, angry, bitter, confrontational or weepy? Obviously, you can’t.

The solution is to prioritize your own needs. They need to come before those of your loved one. No, this isn’t selfish. You have to take care of yourself before you can truly be compassionate and understanding of your loved one’s addiction.

It isn’t easy to get adequate sleep, however, if your addicted loved one is up ranting and raving, throwing things around, playing music, TV or entertaining others into the wee hours. Wear earplugs, eye masks, play soothing music in earphones. Take a relaxing hot bath, or get a massage. Do what it takes to ensure that you get a good 7-8 hours of restful sleep each night. Also, make it a practice to go to bed at the same time each night and rise at the same hour each morning. This establishes a natural sleep rhythm and schedule that your body will become accustomed to.

Nutrition is another vital element in tending to your own well-being. Prepare and serve nutritious meals, rich in whole grains, fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables, and plenty of protein. Watch out for excessive sugar intake or refined carbohydrates. These are especially bad for alcoholics and diabetics. Remember, while you are taking care of yourself with your meal planning, you’re also contributing to the nutrition needs of your addicted loved one. This is another way of showing compassion.

Take Time to Get Away

Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about a situation that occurs. An argument erupts, or you face a mountain of unpaid and overdue bills, or you just found out about another incident involving your addicted loved one that puts your family in jeopardy. When you can safely leave, without causing further disruption, get out of the house for a few hours.

It doesn’t have to be expensive, either. Go see a movie or visit friends. Take a walk in the park or go to the shopping mall. Run errands or take care of needed appointments. Get a massage or have your hair or nails attended to. Take a drive in the car.
The point is that you carve out some time for yourself that’s not in any way involved in your loved one’s addiction. In fact, it’s a good idea to have a regular time that you can devote to yourself. This could be a weekly outing you do with your friends or a trip to the library or bookstore, or a recreational activity you do alone or with others.

When you return from your time away, even if it’s a brief trip out of the house, your mind will be clearer. You will be less stressed and better able to deal with whatever the situation is at home. What may have been too complicated to figure out before may be easier to unravel or sort out now that you’re more relaxed.

Remember, everyone needs time to themselves. When you’re dealing with an addicted loved one, you need to make sure that you have adequate time to relax and rejuvenate.

Seek Help for You

No one has all the answers. Not self-help book authors, not friends, family, not talk-show psychologists – not any single individual. But there is certainly strength in numbers. What do we mean by that? There are 12-step support groups for the loved ones of addicts. These are fellowships of men and women whose lives have been affected by someone else’s addiction. These people come together for the sole purpose of helping each other (and themselves) heal from the stresses and turmoil caused by their loved one’s addiction.

There’s no stigma attached to seeking encouragement and support from 12-step groups. There are groups for loved ones of addicts in almost every addiction: alcoholism, cocaine, narcotics, prescription drugs, sexual compulsion, gambling, and so on. There are no membership dues, and no costs, although contributions are welcomed. Most of these fellowship organizations for loved ones of addicts have in-person meetings in many cities and towns, and even international locations. Many offer telephone and/or Internet meetings, chat rooms and blogs. Most have comprehensive websites where you can learn about the organization, read articles, download literature, and find appropriate books, CDs and DVDs on the various topics pertinent to living with an addicted loved one.

How can a 12-step group help you? Sometimes the best thing is just having someone to listen to what you need to say. Or, if you prefer to say nothing at all for a while, listen to the stories that others relate. You may find their situation is similar to yours or that a solution that worked for them is something that you can adapt and try out. After all, these are people who are living with addicts. They know what it’s like, the kinds of problems you experience, the anguish and uncertainty and despair that often seem almost insurmountable. They can help – with a few kind words, an understanding ear, potential solutions. The groups also often have seminars on job skills, how to cope with emotional burdens, getting your finances in order, how to help the addict without being overbearing, and any number of other topics.

What if Your Loved One Refuses Treatment?

Whether or not your loved one is ready for, or is able to admit that he or she needs, treatment, you can still prepare yourself by being ready with all the available information. At some point in the addict’s life, he or she may be willing to come to grips with the problem. This is the point where you want to be ready.

You may also want to look into an intervention. This is often successful in encouraging an addict to admit that he or she has a problem and to commit to getting treatment. Interventions are staged using professional interventionists, and include family, close friends and/or co-workers who rehearse ahead of time what will happen, what they will say, and do during the intervention. The goal of the intervention is to have the addict leave with the interventionist and go immediately into treatment. You can find out about interventions by checking into the services available through addiction treatment centers. If they don’t have an interventionist, they should be able to recommend one. The key is to have all the arrangements for treatment made before you attempt an intervention. It won’t work if you don’t.

Maybe an intervention isn’t something you want to tackle yet, for whatever reason. You may wish to get brochures about the 12-step groups for the addicts, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, and others, and have them available to show to your addicted loved one. Many of these are downloadable from the websites of the organizations. You can also order many pamphlets (some of which are downloadable as well), books and other resource material that may prove helpful.

If your addicted loved one refuses treatment and won’t hear of going to a 12-step group, perhaps a trusted friend, doctor or member of the clergy can talk with him or her. If not, don’t despair. At some point, when he or she is ready, know that treatment and counseling are available. You can work it out.

Perhaps, when all is said and done, you are unable to remain in the relationship. If you do decide to leave, do so with all the grace and compassion you can muster. It may turn out that you are no longer compatible, or that the relationship has suffered irreconcilable fracture. But this still doesn’t mean that you can’t show compassion, love and understanding. If you do decide to remain with your addicted loved one, or to allow siblings or children who are addicts to remain in the home, tending to your own needs, being prepared, taking time for yourself, and learning as much as you can about the addiction will serve you well in your goal of showing compassion – without being a doormat.

Will it be easy? No. Will it be successful? Maybe. Will you be able to have a happy and satisfying life despite your loved one’s addiction? That’s very much up to you. How well you are able to navigate the situation and take appropriate measures – as well as your own personal desire and commitment to find the best outcome – may very well be the deciding factors. Don’t go it alone. Seek help and support from others. Learn from what worked for those in situations similar to yours and adapt what seems to work best. Above all, remain positive. What you envision for your future has a very good likelihood of becoming reality.

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