Addiction is so pervasive that it is practically present at every turn. In the United States alone, one in every 12 adults suffers from some form of alcoholism. A more significant issue is that alcoholism is just one form of substance abuse, one head in the Hydra. Sooner or later, there is a good chance that you will find yourself caring for an addict in your lifetime. It could be a partner or spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child, or a friend. Or it could end up being you.
If there is an addict in your care, you may feel like banging your head against a brick wall most of the time. You are told time and again that your influence is essential to your loved one’s recovery—but you also are repeatedly informed that “only the addict can cure themselves, you are just a support system.”
On a day-to-day basis, this contradiction frequently manifests as drama and abuse, lies and manipulation, violations of boundaries, and sometimes even the loss of your integrity and self-respect.
How can you address these common difficulties? Read on to find out what you can (and cannot) change when caring for an addict. In some cases, you can help the addict, but in others, you can only help yourself.
Problem: You can’t make them quit.
Solution: The only solution to this gut-wrenching difficulty is acceptance. Acceptance is the first step you should take if you want to effectively help an addict, regardless of how far in the addiction process they are.
As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” This statement rings especially true in scenarios dealing with addiction. You can help pave the road to recovery, but it is up to the addict to walk that path alone. It’s also important to understand that there is no single, straight path to recovery. For every person who does get better, the journey, like the person, is unique.
Once you accept this truth, you can let go of some frustration that bubbles up from the pursuit of what seems like a hopeless goal, and refocus your efforts on being supportive in the efficient ways that you are able.
Problem: The addict does not respect your boundaries.
Solution: This is another area where you need to accept a painful reality. If the addict is not already on their way through full recovery, he or she will never respect your boundaries in most cases. This arises because the addict’s priority is always the drug, and that preference overrides everything else.
So, what can you do about it? Clarify to yourself and the addict what your boundaries are. Become very assertive and firm in protecting those limits. All too often, we are the ones who do not respect our own boundaries. Learn how to say “no” when you mean “no,” and make sure there are consequences when your wishes are not respected, and your boundaries are crossed.
Problem: When you try to help, you end up enabling.
Solution: Often, an addict may ask you for favors: watching their kids, giving them money to spend, doing their errands, etc. Watching someone you care for struggle with health and wealth isn’t easy, so it is quite difficult to say no. Many of us have found ourselves in awkward situations resulting from these favors.
All too often, this event turns into enabling. How do you know where to draw the line? Try to figure out what the addict is doing with the “help” you are providing. If you are running errands because your loved one is strung out, congratulations, that is enabling. If you are doing it because he or she needs to get to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, then congratulations, you are helpful and forthright with assisting in overcoming their addiction.
Problem: Your addicted loved one is adept at manipulating you.
Solution: The trick here is to keep your loved one’s real number-one priority in mind always: the addiction. The invisible monster. Your emotions are not relevant to an addict trying to get a fix, so you too must learn to set them aside. Take a hard, rational look at what is going on, and make decisions logically, not emotionally. Your priority should be the addict’s recovery, not your emotional comfort, or the comfort of your loved ones. Fighting addiction is stressful and often painful, and that too is something you must learn to accept.
Problem: The addict is scared to ask you for help or does not communicate with you.
Solution: There are a lot of reasons why this can happen. While your addicted family member or friend may be responsible for some of them, you too may be a source of communication problems. Blaming and judging is never helpful. Shame helps no one. Indeed, researchers believe that a lack of social support, trust, and connection plays a significant role in the advancement of substance abuse and addiction.
Keep the channels of communication open, and make sure that you are confident and constructive. Remember that the addition itself should not define the person suffering the addiction. If you are struggling to establish a healthy dialogue, or the addict still feels he or she cannot talk to you, attending meetings both separately and together may help.
Problem: You are having a hard time gauging whether the addict is progressing with treatment or not, and thus cannot provide appropriate feedback.
Solution: You are not a mind reader. Nobody expects you to be. There are going to be times when you think the person you care for is doing better when they are in fact doing worse—and vice versa. This can lead you to give the wrong feedback at improper moments, exacerbating problems, and ultimately destroying trust.
A good solution is to create a system for accountability. Talk to your loved one and find out what he or she is doing to get back on the wagon or stay on the road to recovery. This will help you monitor his or her behavior and look for definite signs of improvement or degradation.
Problem: Dealing with the addict is an isolating experience.
Solution: Many times, you are the one who is going to need a stable channel for support. During such times, it can be constructive to join a support group or to speak with a licensed and professional therapist. There is a whole community out there ready to lend assistance. There is no need to go it alone.
As you can see, there are severe limitations in what you can and cannot do to care for a loved one who is an addict. Like the addict, you too must learn to accept that some things are out of your control. By doing so, you recognize those things which you can control. This allows you to provide as much help to your loved one as possible while still protecting your well-being.