I have worked with countless families over the years that struggle with addiction issues and, in my personal experience; these have been my most challenging cases. Addiction is very multi-layered and complicated and effects so many people in a wide variety of ways.
Words cannot describe the struggle of the person addicted and the family and friends watching. When you find out a loved one is struggling with addiction to prescription pills, heroin, alcohol or any other drug, it can be absolutely overwhelming and heart wrenching.
As the mother or father of a person you’ve cared for and raised to your best ability, it can weigh heavier than any other challenge you’ve faced in your life. A wide variety of emotions are often associated with the realization and it takes a long time to move from shock, denial to acceptance.
When our children are younger, we have a pseudo sense of control. We can give time-outs, take things away, assign chores and sometimes even actually “fix” their problems. Regardless of whether or not the outcome was what you intended, you at least felt as though you were able to do something.
When a child is a grown adult, we don’t have that same power or control – but we still have the same maternal or paternal instincts. Also, if our loved one becomes romantically involved and has children, all of the same emotions transfer to them. It is also the same with grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends. We want to help but can also feel helpless and even sometimes hopeless.
This article is a brief summary of some basic tips and strategies to best help when a family member or friend is struggling with an addiction. Keeping in mind, there is not a perfect recipe and every situation has its unique variables. Also, as much as all family and friends WISH (including the person with the addiction), We Can’t Make Them Quit!
First: There is something you can do!
1. Get Educated about Addictions and access your local community resources as soon as possible. Family and friends need to know that it is almost impossible to deal with this alone. Why? Information, support and a plan is essential.
- Cannot fight a disease we don’t understand; just like any other medical diagnoses. We need professional and peer support.
- There are so many myths and misinformation about addictions and how to effectively deal with the problem – being informed will improve your ability to help. Addiction affects men, women, rich, poor, the working, the non-working and the list goes on. It could happen to any one of us and any certain given point in time.
Getting sober and help is a tough process and it may take many times to become sober – also knowing that relapse isn’t failure.
- Mental health services and addictions services work now in tandem together -as it is no surprise that though genetics play a significant role, so does anxiety, depression, and other mental health illnesses – addiction is not a choice – no person I have ever met has wanted to be an ‘addict’ but as we have learned today how slippery that road is – looking for the early signs since the earlier the intervention the better
- There always differences in every family dynamic, but I often see families that feel as though they need to “fix” the problem and this reaction can push your loved one away. Feelings of guilt self-blame, and responsibility emerge and then we are more likely to become anxious, emotional and even angry. Support by professionals and peers will help you deal with the natural emotional reactions. Notice your thoughts before they become reactions. Most reactions are regretted – human but not helpful.
2. So important to talk care of you… as I often share in my sessions, we need to keep our own oxygen tank full before we can help anyone else, even our families and friends. We cannot control so many things in our life, but others but we can control our reactions to the person and event; this is super challenging. Accessing your own personal support and recognizing what you realistically can do to help and knowing there isn’t a way to “rescue”.
3. Fear can be very gripping and crippling for families and friends; terrified their loved one may lose their jobs, lose their families, or even die. The more out of control we feel, the more we try to gain it – leaving feelings of being held hostage. It is difficult to implement healthy boundaries – tough balance between helping and enabling. Though there isn’t a “perfect” balance, we need to aim for it.
4. Following through with rules and expectations; being consistent; offering as much to access professional services with them,
- Listening, encouraging, offering to go with them to counselling if they want. Knowing that SHAME doesn’t ever work – as natural as it is to become angry and frustrated, shaming and blaming 100% doesn’t work
- Do not accept behavior that violates your boundaries. Boundaries can be simple, such as you cannot be at home unless you are sober. This is not being cruel, it is letting your loved one know how serious your concerns are about their disease.
- Following through calmly with your boundaries is so essential, otherwise, your words do not mean anything and you will again feel steam rolled or handcuffed and frustrated. As the old expression says, say what you mean and do what you say.
- Also, knowing that it is important we don’t start blaming ourselves and each other; sadly, I see families divide and argue over what “should” or “should not” be done – we need to have compassion for each other and recognize we are all doing the best we can – also that there isn’t the perfect recipe.
- In taking care of yourselves, also noting the time and energy your concerns take over your life. Sadly, addiction issues are an ongoing battle, so ensuring that your life is not put on hold is important for resiliency. Also, ensuring other family members are not being unintentionally left out and not “seen”, which many family members express in counselling sessions.
5. Knowing you CANNOT do the recovery for them – but only WITH them.
Unfortunately, many family and friends lose their loved one to overdose and this is a terrible tragedy. Much more education, research and support is needed to address the disease of addiction. In the event a loss occurs, please family and friends seek counselling support – you cannot heal alone. Watch that the “inner critic” voice doesn’t internalize guilt – “what more could I have done?” “did I do it wrong?”; these thoughts can lead to hours of torture. As family and friends, support and be there for each other.
YOU DID LOTS! We can only do so much.
Instead, talk about your experiences and stories, continue to advocate and educate. Learn to forgive yourself and your loved one. You did the best you could with what you had and knew…and so did your loved one.