By Jack Gilbert, LCSW, Director of Clinical Services at Clarity Way
It can be devastating to watch a loved one struggle with addiction. It’s painful and personal and brings feelings of helplessness, anger, fear and hurt. You want to do everything in your power to help them get well, but when it comes to addiction, there’s a fine line between helping and enabling your loved one.
Though your intentions are in the right place, some of the ways you may think you’re helping your loved one could actually be keeping them stuck in their addiction. Many of us try to “love” the addict well. We think if we can just give them what they ask for and prove our love for them they’ll stop abusing drugs or alcohol. We think we’re helping them by giving them money, paying their bills, giving them a place to live, helping them get out of various “jams” and other well-intentioned efforts.
The truth is, if you could “love” your loved one well, they’d be well. A tough reality to accept is that all of the energy you’re putting into trying to protect them and “loving them sober,” could be doing more harm than good. Often, it’s not until addicts feel the repercussions of their behaviors and really understand how they’re impacting their loved ones that they are motivated to get well. Think about it. If someone is always around to clean up your messes, why would you be motivated to change? Studies have shown that people are usually motivated to stop abusing substances when the negatives of their addiction outweigh the positives.
Though it might be difficult, there’s something to be said for “tough love.” By setting boundaries and holding your loved one accountable for their actions, you’re helping them — and yourself. Here are some ways to set healthy boundaries with your loved one:
Don’t Make Excuses for Them — If your loved one misses work, school or personal obligations, don’t make excuses for them. They need to address the questions and consequences that result from these absences. If they don’t feel the unpleasant outcomes that result from their drug or alcohol use, why would they want to stop their behavior?
Set Boundaries, and Keep Them — Set firm, healthy boundaries and maintain them. Decide for yourself which of your loved one’s behaviors are unacceptable. Examples of boundaries commonly set include not allowing them in the house when they’re using, not paying their bills or loaning them money, not allowing them to disrespect you or other family members, and not bailing them out if they get into financial or legal trouble. It’s useful to write these down and have your loved one read and sign the document (when they are sober). Don’t waiver in your boundaries. If you go back on the rules you’ve set, it will take longer to gain any ground you’ve made.
Help Yourself — Addiction is a disease of the family and everyone must recover in their own way. A big part of this is getting help and support for yourself so you can help and support your loved one. Seek out support groups created for loved ones of addicted individuals such as Nar-Anon, Al-Anon, Parents of Addicted Loved Ones (PAL) and Adult Children of Alcoholics. You may also consider seeing a mental health counselor who can help you sort out the complex emotions that come with loving an addict. Additionally, don’t let self-care practices fall by the wayside. Exercise, yoga, proper nutrition, and activities and hobbies that give you pleasure can do wonders for your mental and physical health.
Be Vocal About Your Support — Holding healthy boundaries doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be emphatic about your support for your loved one. Let them know that you love them and want to help them get better. Let them know that the boundaries you are holding are because of your love for them and your hope that they’ll take action to get better. If they’re actively trying to get sober, some of the ways you can show your support are by driving them to treatment, participating in treatment as requested by their clinicians, visiting them, and working with their treatment team.