How Does a Family Help the Addict?

by Deborah Montross Nagel | |  

Are You a Family Member Trying to Help an Addict?

Addiction does not just affect the addict; it affects the entire circle of people whose lives are touched by them, especially family members who are trying to help. (When I say, “addict,” I mean addict or alcoholic. An alcoholic is someone addicted to the drug alcohol, but sometimes when people hear “addict” they think that means street drugs. Not always. Let’s include alcoholics so we have a common language.)

The oft-quoted statistic for some time has been that each addict affects an average of five people, sometimes more, sometimes less. That could include co-workers, bosses, friends, neighbors, or family. How severely someone is affected depends on the nature of their relationship to the addict. For example, sometimes a boss or co-worker is closer than a family member. Every circle around an addict is composed differently.

The Toll that Addiction Takes on Family

It’s safe to say that the people in the circle who love the addict, who are intensely focused on and worried about their welfare, suffer greatly. When I work with families (“families” for the purpose of this article are the loved-ones of the addict) I tell them that their lives eventually get as unmanageable as that of the addict. They often resist or resent the notion that their lives get as out of control as that of the addict, but some soul-searching will bear that out.

When families get together and start talking about what they do to control, monitor, or manage the addict, the unmanageability starts rearing its head along with, dare I say, a degree of insanity. It’s like trying to control the rising and setting of the sun or the rhythm of the tides, but when it’s someone you love, it begins to make some weird sense. That is because your world has become skewed and distorted because you are living in an addictive system; what was once unacceptable is now accepted, what was once intolerable is now tolerated, and what was once unthinkable has become the norm. How can one exist in that system and stay rational?

Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, wonderful 12-step programs for families, talk about the Three “C”s: you didn’t cause it, you can’t cure it, and you can’t control it. That is the holy grail of recovery for families. Upon their first encounter with the 3 C’s, many loved ones scoff silently, thinking that is they try hard enough they can fix it or at least manage it. I have a talented colleague who used to say that the families get as obsessed with the addict as the addict gets with the drug. That’s hard to hear for the family members, but let’s think about it for a moment. Recovering addicts will often say that their addiction had become a “full time job.” For the families, the attempts to fix, manage, or control the addict become a full time job. Perhaps not right away, but it will happen. Bank on it. Yes, those around the addict get crazy as well.

Consider that an addict moving toward their drink, pill, snort, or fix is a force of nature. While someone is in an active addiction, there is no longer a choice. No obstacle can hold them back from getting from point A (here) to point B (high.) It’s just not happening. No promise, no desperate commitment, no level of love or obligation, no shame, or no embarrassment will stop them when they are active in their addiction. The ironclad attachment that the addict has to their substance supersedes the love between partners, parents and children, and best friends. They may say “sorry” as they run over you to get high, but the drink or drug will always win. Always. Putting a GPS tracker on their car, tracking their phone, calling ERs, driving around looking for them, and monitoring their ATM transactions does nothing but make you crazy. Loved ones of addicts tragically chase the addict like the addict chases their high, and both are in a dance of futility.

How Can Family Help an Addict?

As a clinician, I often hear from the families before I hear from the addicts. They come to see me and are desperately looking for answers. They recount what they’ve done and what they’ve tried, as if to explain how much they want their loved one to recover. They want to know how to help. When I start telling them how, they get frustrated with me because the answer I have is very counter-intuitive, but it works: Take care of yourself.

Almost without fail, they get mad at me. (Don’t I understand that they are sick? That they could die? Are you saying put them out on the street and let them die? Let them sit in jail?). Yes, yes, not exactly, and yes. Let me explain. There’s an old recovery saying that “no addict gets better because they see the light; they get better because they feel the heat.” Simply put, an addict will consider recovery when the consequences of using outweigh the perceived pleasure.

Those who love an addict will often try to protect them from the consequences of their choices. This actually makes sense, as a loved one, observing them, knows they are irrational and wants to save them from the ramifications they will surely regret one day. However, standing between them and the logical consequences of their choices will keep them sick. In a nutshell, stop running interference for the addict (bailing them out, paying their fines, calling their boss, lying for them, and giving them money – for starters). Get back into your life, and start your recovery (yes, if you have been in an addicted system you need to recover). Go to Al-Anon or Nar-Anon or any support group for families of addicts in your community. There are plenty out there. You need to see, and know, and believe that you are not alone in this. There is power in numbers. This is too heavy to carry alone; you need friends who get it.

So how does that help? When anyone in the system changes, the whole system must and will change. If you change, the addict will change as well, inevitably. Also, when they reach out for help, it will be good if you are in a healthy place and able to support and guide them. Addiction is destructive, insane, and dark. You need to come out into the light – for you and for them. Just as they cannot recover in a vacuum, neither can you. And no, it’s not easy. But nothing of value is.

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