I got a question from a family member of an addicted person after reading our blog post on changing addictive behavior. She asked, “What can I do to actually help an addicted family member?” Seems simple enough. However, the reality of the answer is complex and often hard to implement. Even still, the question remains whether or not family members can help addicted people at all.
I believe the answer to the is, “Yes, we can support recovery for addicted family members.” However, there are a lot of different parts and factors that have to be considered. It is not a straight line process from start to recovered. Here are some of the most important things I believe are most helpful for family members of addicts.
1. Learn about addiction.
Gather information about addiction. Recognize that addiction is created by a variety of factors and no one is to blame other than the person engaging in the behavior. While some may disagree, addiction always begins with a series of choices that involve drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, or whatever the addiction may be. Learn about the addiction and recognize no one outside of the person “caused” the addiction.
2. Allow the addict to experience consequences.
This is simply not enabling the person. Family members of addicts have a tendency to enable. The addicted family member needs to experiences the consequences of their choices. Rescuing the addicted person from consequences makes the problem worse. In fact, it increases the level of consequences that are needed before the person realizes a need for change. You can’t “love” the person into recovery. In fact, rescuing insures that recovery will not happen – at least right now.
Addicts tend to be good at getting others to assume their responsibilities. Take some time to examine your own life. What responsibilities are actually yours? Focus on those. Family members of addicts tend to put all others in the back seat, focusing all of their attention, efforts, and resources toward the addicted family member.
3. Set firm boundaries.
Say what you mean and nothing more. Idle threats are meaningless. Strong boundaries have to be created. One addict once told me, “Threats from my mom are as meaningless as the promises I make to her.” When you want to say, “No,” then do so. If you set a boundary, stick to it. In order to do this, you have to avoid reactions of pity and anger.
These emotions are powerful and happen often for family members of addicts. Anger is a common reaction to addicted family member. Next comes threats and ultimatums. Then, out of pity, they backtrack on their threats and give in to the addict’s persistence. The enabling continues.
4. Encourage responsible behavior.
Recently, a woman told me she decided that she was going to offer to buy her addicted family member a bus pass to go find a job and to have transportation to that job once he found it. The addicted family member refused it. This is an example of providing real assistance to the person. The family member encouraged responsible behavior by making the responsible behavior something that was within reach for the person.
Keep in mind, this is not something you can sell to the addicted person. You can’t lecture, preach, or talk enough for the addicted person to agree with you. He might not agree he needs to get a job. He might not agree he needs to go to a hospital, see a counselor, or anything at all. You’re not likely to talk the person into it. At best, you can encourage responsible behavior.
Admittedly, this is a hard one to spot. Family members of addicts have such a desire for the person to change they often create a picture of change even when it hasn’t occurred. Frankly, it’s hard to tell when people have discontinued substance use. When I say “support,” I do not mean financial support. Money is the lifeblood of addiction. Support might be in the form of encouragement, helping them find a counselor, going to therapy or doctor appointments with them, providing accountability, and being willing to listen to their struggles (not attempts to get you to take their responsibilities).
6. Help yourself.
Perhaps it’s overstating the obvious, but you have to take care of yourself. If you’re the enabling type, this will be hard for you. Taking care of yourself might mean seeing a counselor yourself, attending a support group for family members, or taking some time away. Whatever the case, take care of yourself. You cannot help anyone if you’re not okay.
Family members of addicts can support the addicted person in their recovery. However, family members cannot do it for them. The addicted person has to decide to change. Once that decision has really been made, family members are able to support those changes.
Perhaps you have helped a family member through recovery from addiction. What are some ways you have found to be helpful to the person’s recovery without enabling them?