Alcoholism and drug abuse impact the whole family. Most people end up in recovery for a very common reason: Someone cared enough to push them in the right direction or, literally, walk them in the door for treatment.
“Loving concern, coupled with clear boundaries from someone they love or respect, can make all the difference to an addict whose brain has been hijacked by addiction and can’t make rational decisions,” says Linda Dahl, author of Loving Our Addicted Daughters Back to Life. “Keeping the communication open is vital, because moments will come up when the addict is willing to listen to what can save their lives.”
“Being loved unconditionally, coupled with an understanding of what early recovery requires, can tip the scales,” she adds, “and give a suffering addict that little push towards health and a new life.”
Allies in Recovery
The people who are most likely to help are loved ones such as a family member or close friend. “It’s usually someone close enough to see the impact the addicted behavior is creating,” says Neil B. McGillicuddy, PhD, senior research scientist at Research Institute on Addictions in Buffalo, New York. “It may be more than one person. The more people who work to get assistance for the addict, the more likely those efforts are going to be successful.”
Key allies in recovery may include:
- Parents. There is often no one as vested in a child’s recovery than a parent. They take an active role in helping in recovery efforts, whether their child is underage or middle age. “Parents or a family member are the most important and instrumental people to help most addicts into recovery,” says Dahl.
- Spouse or romantic partner. Intimate relationships are often the first casualties as addictions take people deeper into behaviors of lying, cheating, stealing and isolating. The addict may first think they are being nagged. “Often, that individual family member acts out of love,” says McGillicuddy. “Sometimes, it is through this communication that the loved one agrees to get help. Other times, it might take a loving change in the behavior of the caretaker or partner to get the person to change.”
- Siblings. In some cases the parents are not alive or able to help, or they may be part of the problem. Sisters, sometime more than brothers, are impacted by a sibling’s drug use, and may feel responsible for a sibling in trouble. One man recalls that his sisters helped save is life, saying “Though at the time much of their support came off as anger and sadness, it gave me the desperation I needed to actually do the work necessary to achieve long-term sobriety.”
- Adult children. People who grow up with addicted parents often become caretakers and may take responsibility for trying to get a parent help. Sometimes giving a parent an ultimatum is their only recourse. “My father would sit there with a drink in hand and tell me he wasn’t drinking,” says Elinor. “I finally said to him that if he wanted to see me again, he had to stop drinking.” He honored her request. “He messed up my childhood but somehow got sober toward the end of his life so we could have a relationship.”
- True friends. When using, it is hard to see that the people who support addiction are not friends. Those who try to intervene, encourage seeking help and continue to offer support in the worst of times are true friends and they can be of great help. “Feeling worthy and loveable helps an addict feel safe and resilient,” says Chicago-based clinical therapist, Lynn R. Zakeri, LCSW. This can help motivate people toward recovery.
- Sober peers. People living in recovery and active in self-help and aftercare programs are among the best helpers to those struggling with drug addiction. “They have been there and know how to talk and listen without judgement,” says Brett Bramble of Freedom To Grow, who has seven years in recovery and last year walked across America to honor his sister, who died of an overdose. This kind of support helps counteract the shame and stigma associated with addiction, he says. Serving others also helps those in recovery guard against relapse.
- Clergy and counselors. Some people are more comfortable seeking solace from spiritual advisors or therapists. They may feel less likely to be judged and safer due to confidentiality. One man who has been sober for over 35 years says it was a compassionate nun who helped him through his drinking problem. “It takes special people,” says Zakeri. “The ones who can sit with them without advice or judgment while they are struggling.” A person may be more likely to consider a recovery program or relapse prevention support when guided there by someone who offers comfort and acceptance. Research also shows that this compassionate helper does not have to have a professional title.
Getting and Staying Sober
“Every situation is different,” says McGillicuddy. “One never knows what will prompt a person to do something about their drinking or addiction. Often, love is central to the decision.”