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6 Ways to Support a Loved One Struggling with Addiction

Relationships, Trauma, Boundaries, Therapist Guide
7 min read

Addiction can Affect a Whole System of People

Having a loved one who is ‘addicted’ can be an incredibly difficult experience. You may feel scared, confused, worried, and anxious… and you’d be right to - addiction can be a life-or-death matter. The trauma of seeing someone who you love suffer at the hands of an addiction, is excruciating - I know, I’ve been there. I also know that it’s possible to be OK, regardless if that someone you love is using substances or not. My experience personally and professionally has been that the family and loved-ones of individuals who struggle with addiction are oftentimes left-out of the conversation. It’s common that the person who is identified as ‘sick’, monopolizes the family resources and much time is spent worrying about them and/or trying to get them help.

 

In the background, family members and loved-ones oftentimes quietly suffer, walking on egg-shells in an effort to not ‘rock the boat’ and create anymore chaos in the household. While it’s of course important that the person who is addicted receives some form of help (such as 12-Step, inpatient, outpatient, detox services, etc.), it’s also true that the people who are close to them, need and deserve a space to heal. ‘Addiction’ is a family-disease - it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. This means that all members in a system are affected by the addiction. As such, family, friends, and partners, deserve an opportunity to get help just as the person who is addicted does. They need opportunities to process their feelings, connect with others who can relate, and learn skills and tools to cope with their pain and the unique experience of having a relationship with someone who has an addiction. 

What can you do to support a loved one experiencing addiction?

 

It makes sense that you’d be confused and overwhelmed with trying to navigate how to support someone who is actively in their addiction; it’s been said that addiction is “cunning, baffling, and powerful”. ‘Addiction’ has a mind of its own and it’s important that you attempt to understand it at a basic level, know what your limitations are and where your power lies. While you didn’t cause your loved one’s addiction and you certainly can’t ‘cure’ it, you are not powerless over your actions and reactions to them/their addiction. While it might not be possible to force someone to receive help, I believe that our behavior can work to enable someone’s addiction or not. Here are some tools and tips that you can use to support someone (and yourself) who has an addiction:  

 

  • Educate yourself on the topic of addiction - understand how it can develop, how repeated use actually changes the brain, the lengths someone will go to protect their ‘addiction’, and most importantly, how it is NOT your fault and it is NOT personal.

  • Avoid enabling. Know the difference between ‘helping’ and ‘enabling’ someone. Generally speaking, you ‘help’ when you do something for someone that they can’t do for themselves. ‘Enabling’ is doing something for someone that they can do themselves. When it comes to addiction, before you say ‘yes’ to someone, check-in with yourself and ask, “Is what I am agreeing to, ‘enabling’/feeding their addiction, or not?”. If the answer is ‘yes’, try very hard not to give in. Remember, by not enabling someone, you’re actually caring for their well-being, even if your anxiety and their behavior when you say “no”, suggests otherwise. 
    • Some common examples of enabling-behavior include: Giving someone money to spend on substances, protecting someone from legal consequences as a result of their addiction, lying or covering-up for someone who is using substances, etc.

  • Have physical, emotional, and financial boundaries. Be clear with the person who is addicted about what you will and will not tolerate. Boundaries benefit both you and the person suffering with addiction. Being bound-less, can enable someone’s addiction and will likely cause you to feel resentful, frustrated and fatigued. 
    • An example of a physical and emotional boundary could be an unwillingness to have someone over when they are under the influence of a substance. An example of a ‘financial boundary’ could be an unwillingness to fund anything for someone other than going to a treatment program. 

  • It’s very difficult to help anyone (especially an adult) who doesn’t think they have a problem and doesn’t want help. Depending on your relationship with the person who is addicted and other factors, it also might not be your duty/place to convince someone that they have a problem/need help. It’s appropriate to express concern to someone to a point, but don’t make it your job to convince someone to see something the way you do. This will likely cause resentment for all parties involved. Sometimes the best way to love someone is to be there for them without judgment…but with boundaries (and maybe from a physical distance). You can’t fix people.

  • Attend Al-Anon meetings. Al-Anon is a spiritual and free program that was developed with the intention of helping the loved ones of people who are addicted. You can access meetings virtually and/or in-person in most cities on a daily basis, throughout the globe. One of my favorite Al-Anon sayings in relation to addiction is, “You didn't cause it, you can't control it, and you can't cure it”.

  • Take care of yourself. Self-care is essential, especially when you love someone who is addicted. Keep the focus on you. You can control ‘you’, not someone else’s addiction. 

Navigating how to love and support someone who is active in their addiction is no small feat. Addiction is a daily battle, even for those who are in recovery.  If you’re committed to helping and staying connected to someone who is in their addiction, it’s important to understand what you have control over versus what you don’t. People who are addicted are not ‘bad’, they are ‘sick’ and their ‘sickness’ causes them to do bad things. Do not personalize someone else’s addiction. Make sure to have boundaries, avoid enabling, and most importantly, take care of yourself - remember to put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others. 

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About the author: Jaynee Golden is a Licensed Psychotherapist and a Certified Drug & Alcohol Counselor with a private practice in California. For the past 10+ years, Jaynee has worked in a variety of settings including in residential, outpatient, and partial-hospitalization treatment, with both adolescents and adults who struggle with mental health challenges. Jaynee also has first-hand professional experience working with people who suffer from addiction, as well as with their loved-ones and families. Connect with her directly by visiting her Frame profile