Loving an Addict or Alcoholic: How to Help Them and Yourself
When a person struggles with drug or alcohol abuse, they are likely to struggle with mental health issues and physical problems, both short-term and chronic issues.
They are also likely to cause suffering for their loved ones, including spouses, parents, children, friends, and other family.
For those who love someone who is struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, it is important to know the signs of substance abuse problems and how to best help the person in need. In addition, it is important that family members and friends take care of themselves as well.
Drug or Alcohol Abuse Symptoms
Mayo Clinic offers a comprehensive list of symptoms that may be displayed by a person struggling with drug or alcohol abuse. Many of these may be internal experiences for that individual; however, symptoms that may be evident to others include:
- Appearing intoxicated more and more often
- Developing problems with cognition and memory
- Being lethargic, sleeping more, sleeping irregular hours, or appearing unwell or tired
- Developing problems at work or school; possibly losing one’s job or dropping out of school
- Attending social events only if drugs or alcohol are available; becoming intoxicated before the social event; or attending fewer social events specifically to drink or use drugs
- Stealing money or valuables to pay for drugs
- Lying about the substance or how much they are using
- Becoming angry, sad, or lashing out when questioned about their substance abuse
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they are unable to take the drug
- Neglected appearance and poor hygiene
People who struggle with substance abuse problems are likely to behave differently when they are intoxicated versus when they are sober; they may say or do hurtful things, and they are likely to take serious risks with their life, such as driving while intoxicated. These behavioral problems can cause intense worry and fear in loved ones.
Control vs. Influence
Those who love a person struggling with addiction may, at some point, try to force the person to get help. Even if the person agrees, they may fail in their attempt to overcome the addiction. Addiction is not a choice that an individual can control; it is a compulsion, so they are unable to stop consuming drugs or alcohol without help.
The risk/reward center of their brain has been rewired with repeated reinforcement of these cravings.
Blaming them or trying to protect them from consequences will not help a person struggling with addiction; this is because neither the person, nor their loved ones, has control.
People who are close to a person struggling with addiction, especially spouses, intimate partners, and children, may find they are in a codependent relationship. Codependency involves a desire to help the person and show love, but often, this “help” fosters the addiction, and this is damaging on a long-term basis. Signs of codependency include:
- Taking responsibility for the addict: People in a codependent relationship often feel a heightened responsibility for the decisions, behaviors, and thoughts of their loved one. They may feel a need to ensure their loved one is happy, even to the point of making themselves unhappy. They feel like they must protect their loved one, perhaps by driving them to and from the bar to avoid a DUI or by calling their boss when they are too hungover to make it to work and making excuses for them.
- Putting the other person’s feelings first: A codependent person will put their loved one’s feelings before their own needs. As a result, they often ignore their own feelings, values, and beliefs to accommodate those of their loved one. This results in self-neglect.
- Holding onto the relationship to avoid abandonment: People who are in a codependent relationship fear being abandoned, rejected, and alone. Many desperately need approval, and they seek via constantly trying to please someone. When that person is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they may give the person money or shelter them when they are intoxicated in an effort to maintain the relationship.
- Trouble talking about their feelings: A person who is in a codependent relationship will often not be able to recognize their own feelings, including dissatisfaction or fear; they have a very hard talking about their needs and how those can be met. They focus on “fixing” their loved one, if that person is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, rather than getting help for themselves.
- Inability to set personal boundaries: Those with codependent tendencies are more likely to say “yes” to any request their loved one makes, including those they are not comfortable with. This makes them believe they are in charge of the situation, especially when their loved one struggles with drugs or alcohol. If they can help their loved one, they believe they are helping themselves; in reality, the opposite is true.
Even if two people enter a relationship that is not codependent, it could become codependent if one person begins to struggle with alcohol or drug addiction. Both parties should get help from therapists to overcome these emotional problems; ultimately, help is required to heal the relationship.
How to Help a Loved One Struggling with Addiction
The best ways to help a person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol may seem counterintuitive, especially for people who struggle with codependent relationships. Some of these methods may seem harsh, but they come from a loving approach with the ultimate goal to help the person overcome their addiction and to help all parties heal. Basic steps are outlined below.
- Remember that addiction is not a choice or a moral failing; it is a disease of the brain
- Addiction is ultimately a condition that the individual must learn to manage; no one can take the fight on for the addict.
- Set boundaries and stand by them.
- Encourage the individual to seek help; this may include finding treatment resources for them.
- Find a therapist who specializes in addiction counseling and get help. Loved ones of addicts need support too.
- Set an example for healthy living by giving up recreational drug and alcohol use.
- Be supportive, but do not cover for problems created by substance abuse. The person struggling needs to deal with the consequences of their addiction.
- Be optimistic. A person struggling with drug or alcohol abuse will likely eventually seek help due to ongoing encouragement to do so. If they relapse, it is not a sign of failure; relapse is often part of the overall recovery process.
In the Event of a RelapseWhen a person seeks help to overcome addiction, they are likely to succeed in time with professional help from doctors and therapists, and the support of friends and family. However, the threat of relapse can feel like it is looming, and this can create stress for people who have just completed a rehabilitation program.
The current understanding of addiction as a disease means that symptoms will get worse at times. For people with diabetes or asthma, treatment will work for a period of time, and then symptoms may progress. This does not mean giving up; instead, it means returning to the doctor and developing a new treatment regimen. Understanding addiction as a disease means treating relapse in exactly this way: Work to avoid it, but if it happens, return to treatment. Relapse is only a serious problem when the person who has fallen back into addiction refuses to admit the problem and refuses to get help.
When looking at treatment options, it is important to ask how the rehabilitation program handles relapse. Many programs pair new participants with sponsors who have graduated the program; these people will understand the progression of recovery and serve as a source of support for the person if they are even tempted to relapse.
Friends and family should also be supportive if a loved one seems likely to relapse. Be there for the person without judgment and help them recommit to treatment.
Loved ones can help to prevent relapse by removing intoxicating or tempting substances from the house, finding new activities to enjoy together that do not involve alcohol or drugs, setting healthy goals like eating or exercising together, and even finding a hobby to pursue together. It is important for the person overcoming addiction to change their behaviors, and it is also important for loved ones to support and welcome that change.