By Jack Gilbert, LCSW, Clinical Director at Clarity Way
It’s very common for your life and needs to be off balance when you love someone with an addiction. This can lead to high levels of emotional and physical stress and put you at risk for developing your own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual problems. Not surprisingly, research has shown that caregivers of people with substance use disorders experience a lower quality of life, depression and high stress levels.
It’s essential to maintain your health and well-being and keep your life balanced when your loved one is abusing drugs or alcohol. This doesn’t mean you care any less, it simply means you’re dealing with your loved one’s addiction as a part of your life and not allowing your life to revolve around their problems.
Here are some ways to live a balanced life when you’re dealing with a loved one’s addiction:
1. Practice good self-care
The number-one rule for anyone in a caretaker role is to take good care of themselves. This rule certainly applies to people who have loved ones with substance use disorders. Taking care of yourself can mean:
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating a nutritious diet
- Practicing mindfulness
- Having fun
- Having downtime
- Engaging in activities that support spirituality
2. Accept that you can’t change them
It’s important to understand this isn’t your fault and you can’t make another person change if they’re unwilling to do so. You can’t do the work for them. You can be there for your loved one when they’re ready to get help. You can offer emotional support and love, but you can’t fix them, and you’re not responsible for their sobriety.
3. Develop a support network
Dealing with a loved one’s addiction can be extremely isolating. Make sure you have a strong support network to lean on during difficult times. Your support network might include family and friends who are empathetic toward your situation as well as people you meet in groups like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon and CODA. Mental health professionals can also be an immense source of support.
4. Encourage healthy actions
You can’t fix your loved one, but you can support them as they begin developing the motivation to change. Support their healthy choices and behaviors while discouraging and withdrawing support for unhealthy, addictive behaviors. Be encouraging if they take any steps toward sobriety and living a better life. These may be actions like attending a 12-step, Refuge Recovery or SMART Recovery meeting, applying for a job, refraining from drinking at a work or family function, exercising, or taking responsibility for a mistake. Even if they’re not ready to give up drugs and alcohol for good, provide positive reinforcement for even small actions that support their independence or get them one step closer to sobriety.
5. Attend individual therapy
Many people find that the guidance of a mental health professional does wonders for helping them more effectively deal with their addicted loved one and restoring balance when it’s been lost. Work with a therapist to process the difficult situation you’re going through and the emotions you’re experiencing as a result. It’s natural for loved ones of people with substance use disorders to have intense feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness, disappointment, anxiety as well as shame and guilt. A therapist can help you address these emotions, establish boundaries and avoid enabling behaviors.
6. Attend family therapy
Because addiction is a family disease, it takes a toll on everyone. In order for the family unit to heal, it’s important that everyone has an opportunity to get support, express their feelings and be heard. This process is much more effective with the guidance of a specially trained mental health professional who can serve as a guide and ensure productive communication.
7. Join a support group
Mutual aid groups for loved ones of addicted people can be a wonderful source of support. People who attend these groups have been there and can truly relate to what you’re experiencing. The benefits of being part of a fellowship that supports the caretakers and loved ones of addicted people are significant and include:
- A source of emotional support
- Help setting boundaries
- Learning to detach with love
- Understanding you cannot control your loved one’s addiction
- Pinpointing and avoiding enabling behaviors
- Learning how to focus on your own life again
Support groups for loved ones of people with substance use disorders include:
8. Don’t enable
Enabling happens when we become over-involved in the lives of loved ones with substance abuse issues. I always tell loved ones of addicted people that refraining from enabling behaviors doesn’t mean they’ve stopped caring for or loving the individual. It means they’re not supporting their loved one in any behaviors that are unhealthy and sustain their addiction.
9. Maintain healthy boundaries
To avoid enabling your loved one, it’s essential to establish healthy boundaries. It’s best if boundaries are established in advance of unwanted behavior so your loved one knows what to expect when they cross a line. Healthy boundaries may include actions like:
- Not providing financial support for gas, food, cell phone service, etc. when they’re active in their addiction
- Not allowing them in your home when they’re abusing drugs or alcohol
- Not making up excuses for absences from work, school or social commitments as a result of their substance abuse
- Not bailing them out or providing legal help if they’re arrested
10. Support them in their recovery
If your loved one does decide to participate in addiction treatment, be ready to support them in their recovery when they return. An important way to do this is to be unwavering in your boundaries. Your loved one should understand that if they relapse, you may help them obtain the treatment they need, but you will not enable their destructive behaviors.
To be prepared in the event your loved one relapses, develop conditions for continued support. These are conditions that they agree to in order to have your support, be it financial and/or emotional before they leave treatment. Clearly establish in advance what is expected in terms of your loved one’s sobriety and what will happen if those expectations are not met. Examples of conditions for continued support include:
- Follow any post-discharge treatment plan
- Participate in a least one type of sober support group regularly such as AA, NA, Refuge Recovery or SMART Recovery
- Attend an intensive outpatient program
- Participate in individual therapy, couples therapy and/or family therapy
- Transition to a sober-living residence before coming home
- Participate in drug testing
- Maintain employment or school attendance/assignments
Having an addicted person in the family can make every day and every interaction a challenge. But with 23 million people addicted to drugs or alcohol and many more millions of loved ones affected, you are not alone. There is support available to put you in the best position to help yourself and your addicted loved one.