Caring about someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol is emotionally draining. It can also be a tremendous drain on the family finances. Whether the addict is a struggling youth or a distinguished professional, there may be little left of the family bank accounts, investments, even the home by the time they get help.
The advice for loved ones can be confusing: Support but don’t enable. Let go but stay close. Here are a few concrete ways to become part of the solution:
#1 Make an Honest Assessment.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell: Are you helping a loved one in crisis or enabling their addiction? Enablers:
• Comply with the addict’s requests for money, favors or things just to keep the peace
• Assume drug use is just a phase that will get better on its own
• Take on the addict’s responsibilities as their own
• Rescue the addict from difficult situations
• Give not only second but third, fourth and fifth chances
• Engage in destructive behaviors alongside the addict despite knowing the addict has a problem
• Do things for the addict that they should do for themselves, such as paying bills or fulfilling job or family responsibilities
Even though enablers act out of love and concern, their attempts to protect the addict prevent them from experiencing the full consequences of their actions, thereby prolonging the addiction. In contrast, true supporters allow the addict to experience the natural consequences of their actions and encourage them to accept help.
#2 Help Yourself.
Offering “help” that truly helps isn’t always second nature. For many families, it requires communicating and interacting in a way that is different from their norm. Enablers can learn to take care of themselves while offering healthy support by attending support groups for loved ones of addicts, such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon. If an addicted loved one is in rehab, family members may be invited to participate in a family program or family counseling. It’s also advisable to seek individual counseling to address the many ways in which the addict’s behavior has changed your life and the way the rest of the family functions.
In an effort to save your loved one’s life, you may have spent the majority of your financial reserves trying to protect them from harm or get them treatment. Regardless of your addicted loved one’s recovery status, you need your own financial recovery plan. Talk to a financial counselor or life coach, attend a money management seminar, or find a book or computer program that can help you make a plan for repairing your financial health.
#3 Explore New Tools.
There are new products emerging to help addicts and their loved ones. For example, there’s a prepaid debit card that allows loved ones to provide financial support while monitoring how the money is spent. The card has built-in controls that exclude it from use at bars, liquor stores, strip clubs, casinos and similar establishments, and inform cardholders of attempts at unauthorized use. Users also cannot receive cash back with purchases or cash from an ATM.
Obviously, there are ways to circumvent the card’s protections (e.g., buying other goods and trading them for drugs or purchasing alcohol at a supermarket) but it’s one way to balance support with accountability. It’s a type of money management 101 for those who never developed basic finance skills or those who learned the skills only to lose them to addiction.
#4 Practice Financial Tough Love.
It’s not the addict’s fault that they have an addiction but it is their responsibility to manage their illness – and how you interact with them can edge them closer to responsibility or further into addiction. Emotional pleas and logic aren’t always effective with addicts; their capacities for empathy and judgment are too impaired by drugs. When other approaches have failed, sometimes loved ones must practice financial tough love.
When the addict is ignoring your rules and expectations and hurting themselves and others in the process, it’s time to get serious about not supporting their habit. With tough love, family members continue to offer emotional support and help with treatment – emotional, financial or otherwise – but cut off other types of financial support. That means no money, no car, no phone – anything that can be converted to drugs.
#5 Adopt a Whatever-it-Takes Approach.
Financial tough love is just part of the broader strategy in helping an addicted loved one. It is designed to stop any enabling behaviors on the part of family members and friends, and to help the addict see the reality of what their life has become. The next step is doing everything possible to get the addict into treatment.
Set and enforce boundaries with renewed persistence and consistency. Monitor spending with abandon. Stage an intervention. Research treatment centers. In doing so, you’ll send a clear message that you will no longer enable or rescue, making it much more difficult for the addict to maintain their habit. Use any leverage you have left so that every other option outside of treatment is extremely unattractive.
As a result of physical and psychological dependence, addicts will use any means necessary to get money for drugs, including heart-wrenching pleas, threats, guilt, theft and manipulation. Loved ones who adopt the same whatever-it-takes approach in getting the addict into treatment can stop financing addiction and start financing recovery.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in addiction medicine and addiction psychiatry. He is the CEO of Elements Behavioral Health and oversees such treatment centers as Promises, The Ranch, The Recovery Place, The Sexual Recovery Institute, and Right Step. David is a sought-after expert who often appears in the major media.