Most families have been touched by addiction. Many have been forever altered by it. And though most people are affected by it, few understand it. This is because addiction is not a logical disease. The selfishness, the repeated mistakes despite devastating consequences – none of it makes sense, not even to the person living it.
The recurring tumult – ER runs, bail requests, evictions – can lead the addict’s family members to make sweeping assumptions: “He doesn’t love me anymore.” “We’ve lost him forever.” While this may turn out to be true, it’s a story that is being written and the ending is far from certain. The hopelessness that sets in makes the entire family sick and makes it more difficult for the addict to seek the help they need.
The more you know about what drives an addict’s choices, the better situated you will be to help your loved one. Here are five truths you should know about the addict in your life:
#1 Your loved one has a treatable disease.
No one wants to be an addict. Your loved one made the initial choice to try drugs or alcohol, but as addiction sets in, changes in the brain make it very hard to stop. Although it is understandable for loved ones to feel angry and resentful, the only approach that improves the situation is to love the addict and hate the disease, not the other way around.
One of the first steps in helping an addict is getting educated about their problem. Scientific research shows that addiction is a brain disease, not a moral failing or character flaw. Addicts are sick people who need treatment. Most addicts who try to quit on their own do not succeed. Because addiction is no one’s fault, there is no place for judgment, guilt, punishment or blame in the recovery process.
#2 The person you love is still in there.
Addiction turns honest people into liars, and close-knit family members into strangers. Someone who once was a “family guy” may stop calling or showing up for family gatherings. A successful professional with everything going for them may lose all motivation to do anything but get and use drugs.
Although it may seem that the person you knew has been swallowed up by their addiction, their core identity is still intact. With treatment, the substance dependent person can rediscover who they are and what matters to them. Life may never be exactly the same, but it may also be better. Spiritual and psychological awakenings in people who have been addicted occur in the course of treatment and recovery.
#3 There’s a good chance your loved one’s illness has made the entire family sick.
Witnessing a loved one’s spiral into addiction can be heart-wrenching. In response to overwhelming stress, the family builds its defenses. Some will minimize or outright deny that there is a problem; some make excuses for the addict; others may remove themselves from the situation entirely. While these defenses may help family members cope with the problem in the short term, in the long run they leave everyone – both the family and the addict – living in chaos.
Resentment builds as the constant focus on the addict detracts from each family member’s needs. Loved ones want to fix the addict or fall into the trap of believing they cannot be happy if the addict is still sick, which can lead to dysfunctional responses like controlling and enabling.
In order to support your loved one, you must take charge of the only thing you can control: yourself. Taking care of yourself is not selfish; it protects against burnout and prevents the worst fate of all: giving up on the addict altogether. Family members can gain valuable support from groups like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon and participating in individual or family therapy. By engaging in healthy detachment – offering love, support and boundaries while letting the addict experience the negative consequences of their drug use – you can protect your own mental and emotional health while promoting the addict’s recovery.
#4 Your loved one needs your help and support.
You can’t cure your loved one’s addiction, but you can facilitate their recovery. Contrary to popular belief, addicts do not have to hit “rock bottom” before they can get help. Most addicts feel conflicted about getting treatment. Many are court ordered or urged by family or friends to get help. Studies show that what brings them into treatment matters less than the fact that they find their way there.
Interventions can be an effective way to help addicts recognize the seriousness of their problem and agree to treatment. During treatment, stay involved through family therapy, visits and any other programs offered for loved ones. Learn all you can about the disease of addiction as well as any unhelpful behaviors you may have adopted that contribute to addictive patterns.
#5 Relapse is a common part of recovery.
With all the effort families put into getting their loved one into treatment, it can be devastating if the addict slips back into drug use. But with a chronic disease like addiction, there is no quick fix. It takes time for the brain to heal and for new thought and behavior patterns to take root.
A clear understanding of the chronic nature of addiction can prepare families to take swift action if the addict relapses. Although disappointing, relapse can be a valuable learning opportunity that sets people on the path toward long-term recovery.
Families that come to accept these truths about the addict in their life take an important step toward understanding the disease. This understanding not only feels better in the short term, but also grants loved ones the lasting peace of mind of knowing they are doing all they can to help themselves and the addict.
David Sack, M.D., is a triple board certified psychiatrist and CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment programs that includes Clarity Way, Journey Healing Centers in Utah, The Ranch, and Lucida Treatment Center in Florida.
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Last reviewed: 11 Aug 2014