Living with or around an addict is extremely difficult. But, with 1 in 10 Americans struggling with a substance use disorder at some point during their lives, most Americans will have a close friend or family member who is addicted to a substance at some point in their lives. Today, an estimated 1 in 25 people have a loved one who is fully substance dependent. Substance abuse affects how a person acts, thinks, responds, and behaves. If your loved one is dependent on a substance, they are no longer the person they were before.
Massive changes in behavior, often to the worse with many drug-dependent individuals turning to narcissism, manipulation, lying, and even theft, can be hurtful and deeply damaging to friends and family members. This can result in reactions ranging from anger to hurt to continuously trying to solve the problem and fix your loved one. The problem is that each of these reactions is a mistake. These 9 mistakes loved ones frequently make with an addict might help you on your way to accepting, understanding, and getting your addicted loved one into treatment.
1) Judging their Behavior
Judgement is easy. But, if you don’t know enough about addiction, it’s easy to condemn your loved one for the wrong reasons. People often fall into patterns of judgement and blame because they’re disappointed and hurt but you should work your way out of these patterns.
The first thing to keep in mind is that addicts don’t choose to become addicts. Anyone who is addicted to a substance made a series of bad choices that resulted in chemical and behavioral dependency, which they did not actively choose. They are culpable for their actions, but they are sick and they are in pain.
Judgement and blame will reinforce negative emotions, which will deteriorate their ability to trust you and ask for help, while pushing them towards further substance use. What can you do instead? Accepting addicted behavior as a simple aspect of sickness is a start. You should also carefully decide how and when to show anger and judgment, because chances are, you want to share that you’re worried about an individual, not that you’re disgusted they’re using again.
2) Not Learning About Addiction
Addiction is an extremely complex and multifaceted disorder with links to genetics, childhood trauma, environment, brain development, stress, and other emotional and behavioral factors. Some are more vulnerable to addiction and to the behaviors that encourage addiction than others. Learning about addiction, how it impacts others, how it changes people, and what you can do around it will help a great deal.
Here, your greatest resources will be groups like Al-Anon. You can also walk into nearly any local crisis center to pick up information about addiction.
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3) Setting Priorities Around Appearances
Chances are that you have lied, hidden your loved one’s addiction, and otherwise taken steps to ensure no one finds out. Most people around addicts do. This behavior can feel like you’re protecting them but it often communicates one thing. You care more about appearances “what will the neighbors think” than you do about whether they’re safe.
Instead, you should work to communicate “I want you to be safe” first and foremost. You can combine this with an “I will not lie for you” policy, unless you think it will hurt their career, job prospects, or school although even then, the merits of lying and hiding an addiction are often fairly low. You should also keep this in mind when communicating about drug use, because their safety and not whether anyone else knows or finds out should always come first.
4) Taking Responsibility for Them
It’s easy to blame yourself for a loved one’s problems. It’s also easy to try to take on their responsibilities, fix their problems, and take on their responsibilities. You cannot do this. You as a human being cannot sustain taking on the work of two people for the long term. Addicts have to take responsibility, recognize where they are failing and why, and use that as motivation to recover. If you’re taking on everything, they cannot do that.
Making this step means accepting the very hard reality that you cannot help. Until they ask for something you can offer, like getting into a rehab program, there is nothing you can do.
5) Tough Love
Tough love was used as the standard for a long time. When your loved one passes certain boundaries or doesn’t meet certain obligations, you cut them off completely. The person then has to face the consequences of their actions and addiction on their own, often on the street. The problem with this sort of “love” is that it doesn’t produce the intended results. Without a cushion to fall back on, many people simply get worse. Tough love feeds into negative emotions of loneliness, despair, and removes motivation of getting better for loved ones.
At the same time, you can’t keep giving and giving to an addicted loved one with no return. You can’t keep investing your time and energy. Here, detaching with love is a much better choice. Detaching with love allows you to step back from offering emotional, financial, or other investment, while still being there for your loved one. You stop putting effort into them, you stop having expectations about them, but you remain part of their life, talk to them, and offer support when and where you can.
6) Offering Ultimatums
Ultimatum’s are a tactic nearly everyone uses at one point or another, but they often backfire. In a hypothetical scenario, a person with an addicted loved one goes “if you use again, you’re not allowed into my house”. Their loved one, of course, uses again and she does not have the heart to actually kick him out of her house. The addict learns that ultimatums mean nothing because their clear black and white boundaries are too difficult for most people to enforce or stick to.
What can you do instead? When you do create an ultimatum, make sure you stick to it. Don’t set ultimatums you aren’t prepared to follow up on and avoid them wherever possible.
7) Not Setting Clear Boundaries
Clear boundaries can help you to define a healthy life for yourself and your loved ones around an addict. They also allow you to define what you are comfortable with and what you are not comfortable with. For example, “I am not comfortable with you getting drunk in my house”, “I am not comfortable with your friends being around our children”, and so on.
You should establish clear boundaries by writing them down on paper, deciding what repercussions will occur when these boundaries are crossed, and be prepared to follow up on them. For example, if you set boundaries around drinking in the house and you discover this person doing so, you could establish that you will react by throwing out any alcohol you can and asking them to leave the house for a set period of time (if that is a safe thing for you to do). If you fail to follow up on repercussions for boundaries, all of your boundaries become meaningless.
8) Failing to Communicate Clearly
Most people expect that their addicted loved ones will understand what they mean and how they mean it. If you get angry at your loved one and insult them because of their drug or alcohol use, you expect them to know it’s because you care and you’re scared. If you don’t bail them out of jail, you expect them to know it’s because you expect they’ll just be using again and you think they’ll be safer in jail. The thing is, they won’t.
Clear communication is crucial to sharing with your loved one that you care, that you want the best for them, and that you’re trying to get them into treatment.
Enabling behavior is extremely easy. Chances are, you’ve done it without ever realizing. Enabling includes any behavior that allows an addict to continue using in the same circumstances because someone else is picking up bills, slack, hiding their substance use, paying for substance use, and so on. In some cases, this involves actively supplying substances because they go into withdrawal. In others, it’s as simple as unknowingly paying the rent for someone who should have had the money.
If you find yourself in the position of an enabler, it’s important to step out of it. Stop paying for bills, don’t hide or cover for your loved one, and don’t do their work or responsibilities. What can you do instead? Offer education, anti-overdose kits like Naloxone in the case of opioid use, and offering to help them get into therapy. It’s always beneficial for loved ones of an addict or alcoholic to go to a support group like Al-Anon or Alateen.
Living with or sharing any part of an addicted person’s life is difficult. It’s easy to make mistakes and you will make them. However, you should also be aware of when and what those mistakes are, so you can live as comfortably as possible around them and hopefully get them into rehab and recovery.