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4 Things You Can (and Can’t) Do to Help an Addicted Loved One

woman sitting with therapist looking distressed

Family and friends who try to help a loved one struggling with addiction get a lot of mixed messages:

“You’re one of the single greatest influences in your loved one’s life.”

“You didn’t cause it, you can’t cure it and you can’t control it.”

The first statement and the “three Cs” of addiction recovery are often both true, making it a challenge to know how to help a drug or alcohol addict.

So how do you help an addicted loved one if you’re influential but aren’t in control? How do you stay close to a drug addict but avoid enabling? Here are a few suggestions from two women who have come face-to-face with the harsh realities of addiction.

What You Can’t Do to Help an Addicted Loved One

1. Make Them Quit

You can stage an intervention. And you may be successful. But you cannot force someone with a substance abuse problem to quit. Even in states that allow involuntary treatment, you can’t make someone get sober or stay sober in the long-term.

“You can keep throwing money at them, telling them what to do and trying to lift them up, but they have to commit to it,” says Eve Goldberg, a mom who lost her 23-year-old son, Isaac, to an opiate overdose in 2013. “I’ve learned you have to let go. You can’t control them or the situation, and the sooner you accept your lack of control, the sooner they can face the natural consequences of their actions.”

2. Do the Work of Recovery for Your Loved One

Even if the person you care for goes to drug rehab, you can’t do the work of recovery for them. You can’t hold their hand in support groups or do the 12 Steps for them. You also can’t prevent relapse.

After Eve’s son completed addiction treatment, everything was going well. He had a job and was rebuilding his life. He told his mom “I’m never going back to that bad place again.”

Months later, he spiraled back into active addiction. She tried to talk to him about the signs she was seeing. But he didn’t want to admit to using. One night, Eve heard unusual breathing from his bedroom. When she checked on him, she couldn’t wake him up. After six weeks in a coma, the doctors told Eve that Isaac was gone.

Eve was well-educated about addiction. She stayed close to Isaac and kept the lines of communication open. Unfortunately, “Even if you see the signs, you can’t always do something about it.” Addiction hijacks the brain, leading people to hide, lie, and manipulate to maintain their drug abuse. Isaac didn’t want to die. He wanted to get better. But there is simply no logic in addiction.

Carole Bennett, MA, is the author of Reclaim Your Life: You and the Alcoholic/Addict and Is There a Dry Drunk in Your Life? and a counselor in private practice. After dealing with her own family’s substance abuse for over 20 years, she learned, “You shouldn’t babysit someone’s recovery. You can be a participant in their healing, but from arm’s length.”

For many, even those who ultimately maintain their recovery long-term, relapse is a common part of the process. Like other chronic diseases, it’s not unusual for those struggling with addiction to need multiple episodes of treatment. “Someone can go to meetings, have a sponsor and be a poster child for AA but still relapse,” says Bennett. “It’s a vicious cycle, and the person has to be willing to reach out for help to stop it.”

3. Accept Behavior That Violates Your Boundaries

To avoid enabling your loved one, you have to set boundaries. This is how to help a drug or alcohol addict. Once you’ve laid out your boundaries clearly with the person you care about, allowing those boundaries to be violated destroys your credibility and perpetuates your loved one’s addiction.

“If you don’t follow through with consequences when someone violates one of your boundaries, your word is like quicksand,” says Bennett. “If you say what you mean and mean what you say, even if they’re mad at first, they’ll respect you in the long-term.”

Boundaries can be basic. For example, the person has to be clean and sober if they’re in your home. If the boundary is broken, Bennett recommends calmly saying, “We talked about this, and this doesn’t work for me,” or, “I love you, but I can’t go down this road anymore.”

Then you should follow through with the consequence. Holding firm to your boundaries may mean disengaging for a period of time—or indefinitely.

4. Always Bail Out Your Loved One

If you’re trying to help a person struggling with addiction, you may want to or think you need to save them in certain situations. For example, substance abusers often struggle with their finances and sometimes get into trouble with the law. Many friends and family members of addicted loved ones try to help by bailing them out of jail, offering them money or paying for bills or lawyers. But if a drug addict knows they will always be saved, then they have less incentive to stop using.

It’s never easy to see an addicted loved one suffer. Your instinct is to help, but helping them doesn’t mean always bailing them out of difficult situations.

Of course, if an addicted loved one is really struggling to survive, then it would be necessary to take action, but it’s also important for drug abusers to face the consequences of their actions. Reaching rock bottom is often when someone decides they can’t continue feeding their addiction.

“Sometimes love is letting them hit bottom,” Bennett says. For evidence, she suggests going to an open AA meeting. “More often than not, you’ll hear people say, ‘Thank God my parent kicked me out/said no.’ As difficult as it is, you don’t have the power to fix it. Only they do.”

What You Can Do to Help an Addicted Loved One

1. Get Educated about Addiction

You can’t help fight an enemy you don’t understand. Learn about addiction. This means understanding addiction as best you can: the signs, the treatments, and the relapse triggers. Follow this learning up by talking to your loved ones about drugs and alcohol from an early age. While education is no guarantee of healthy choices, it can be a powerful tool in preventing drug abuse and finding a way into recovery.

If your loved one goes into treatment, participate in any family programs that are offered. The education and encouragement that a drug rehabilitation center provides can help you support your loved one and take care of your own needs at the same time. Then continue to be a source of support and accountability post-treatment. This is often critical since this a time when drug cravings and triggers heighten the relapse risk. Bennett strongly recommends putting into place a family recovery contract when a loved one returns home from treatment or sober living. It’s “a plan for ones in recovery to incorporate doable, realistic goals AND consequences for falling short of those goals.”

She notes, “If the ‘addict’ doesn’t live at home, a recovery contract is important with fewer stipulations, but not imperative.”

2. Help a Loved One Find Treatment

It’s difficult to know how to help a drug addict without creating a co-dependent relationship. If you try to fix everything for them, then they won’t be able to develop their own coping skills. But avoiding co-dependency doesn’t mean you can’t offer reliable support to an addicted loved one.

One thing you can do to help a drug addict is to find a suitable therapist or treatment center for them. Research treatment facilities and counselors in your area who specialize in addiction. This is where being educated about addiction helps; you can do research on medical detox and inpatient treatment vs. outpatient treatment, and you can feel confident asking questions when you inquire about their programs.

Offering an addicted loved one money may enable their addiction, whereas helping to fund therapy sessions can do the opposite. For many drug addicts, mental health issues are what lead to addiction. Substance abuse can also worsen their mental health, so for many addicts, mental health treatment is necessary.

3. Take Care of Yourself

A critical lesson for Eve, mother of the son addicted to opiates, was the importance of being good to herself, regardless of whether her son was doing well. You can’t control another person, but you can make healthy decisions for yourself. This is necessary if you want to have any hope of being able to support and encourage your loved one.

For some people, groups like Al-Anon provide a safe place to get education and fellowship with others who are facing similar struggles. Others prefer seeing a therapist privately or joining a different type of support group.

Whatever your path looks like, “You have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep looking forward, not back,” Eve says. “There’s no way to make sense of it. There’s no reason why my son should’ve died. Give yourself over to a higher power—for me, it was the only way I could live my life.”

There’s a lot of pain and grief involved when you love someone with a substance abuse problem. Your other family members and friends may not grieve in the same way as you and may have their own ideas about how to handle the situation. Eve started BIGVISION®, an organization dedicated to helping young adults transition into sober life after rehab. Although her family had trouble understanding it at first, helping others suffering from the same illness that took away her son has been an integral part of her healing.

4. Talk about It with Your Loved One and Others

Talking about addiction can be healing both for the person trying to overcome it and you, their loved one. An addicted person may be reluctant to come to you and ask for help, but an open dialogue is your best chance to be there for them when they need you most. “Work on building a good relationship, without judging or accusing,” Eve suggests. “You have to step back, you can’t be on top of them all the time, or they won’t trust that they can come to you.”

When you’re trying to take care of yourself, nothing is more toxic to your healing than shame. Eve had many friends who struggled with addiction in their family but were too ashamed to talk about it. “We made a decision as a family to be up front about our struggles,” she says. “The more you talk about it, the more you realize everyone has a story, everyone has been affected by addiction in some way.”

For Eve, speaking her son’s name and telling his story is one way to keep his memory alive. “I still cry when I tell Isaac’s story, even two years later. And I can see people’s faces cringe when I talk about my dead child. They don’t know how to handle it,” she says. “But I can’t worry about making them uncomfortable. He’s still my son and I won’t pretend he didn’t exist.”

The realities of addiction are painful. It’s hard to hear that a loved one’s life is at risk and you can’t fix it. But once you accept certain realities, you may discover there’s empowerment beyond the powerlessness. It’s not always obvious how to help a person struggling with addiction, but there are steps you can take to help both them and you. Once you’ve taken those steps, you can take solace in knowing you did all you could in the face of a devastating disease.

Posted on December 7, 2015 and modified on April 25, 2019

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