When it comes to addiction, everyone has his or her preconceived notions. No matter what the experts and research have told us, it’s difficult to separate unbiased fact from personal experience. In the media, addicts are often portrayed as dangerous, untrustworthy criminals. Meanwhile, those of us who have loved ones suffering from addiction will create our own analysis after seeing their self-destructive behaviors.
As difficult as it is to watch a person you love suffer from this terrible disease, it’s important to remember that it’s no easier to actually be an addict. Although addiction may seem to be a life of frivolous self-indulgence and wanton carelessness, the disease comes at a huge cost to one’s physical health, psychological wellness, independence, relationships and opportunities.
It’s true that there’s no known cure for addiction, but that doesn’t mean that an addict can’t start a new life free from substance abuse. With the right resources and ample support, recovery is achievable for anyone. However, we should all be aware that, as the individuals lending support to those suffering from addiction, the best of intentions can be a major hindrance to an addict’s recovery. While your support can be a vital commodity to helping your loved one’s addiction recovery, there are five things you should never do when you have an addicted loved one.
Make It All About You
There’s no denying that the fallout from addiction is devastating. When one person develops an addiction, it’s virtually guaranteed that the disease will tear through the lives of the people closest to that individual. An addict’s loved ones are often blindsided since most of individuals never expect a family member or close friend to develop a crippling substance abuse problem. For the people on the sidelines, having to watch a loved one suffer from addiction is an extremely emotionally intense, confusing and very draining time.
How could you do this to me? This is a question that many addicts’ loved ones ask upon learning about the addiction and its severity. It’s difficult for the addiction itself — which began as a series of choices before becoming a psychological and physiological dependency — not to feel like a personal affront against the people closest to the addict. But approaching it this way is one of the worst possible things to do.
Although there are other reasons, one of the most common motivations for addicts to keep their substance abuse problems a secret from their loved ones is due to the effects they see their addictions potentially having on their families. Further, addicts often expect that their family members and close friends will no longer love them if they learn about the alcohol or drug addiction.
Whether or not you actually feel this way, making an addict feel bad or guilty for having this disease is an extremely dangerous approach. Guilt, shame, embarrassment, and other, comparable feelings often become substance abuse triggers over the course of the development of an addiction. An addict doesn’t develop an addiction as a way to hurt those individuals closest to him or her. The disease is causing the addict harm, so encouraging his or her recovery should be the priority rather than how the addiction affected others.1
Make the Addict’s Choices
After learning of the addiction, many individuals want to force the addict into treatment. This is, expectedly, most common when the person with the substance abuse problem is underage, but well-intentioned loved ones often try to force recovery onto adult addicts, too. Obviously, this comes from a place of love and concern. However, recovery isn’t something an addict can be forced into, and here’s why.
Let’s assume that you have an addicted loved one and you were successfully able to coerce him or her into a rehabilitation program. Assuming that he or she wasn’t able to leave voluntarily, an addict who doesn’t want to be sober will simply go through the motions of the program without addressing the underlying issues and quickly return to substance abuse upon his or her release. No matter what level of force you apply, there comes a point when the addict will either face their problems or resist. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that forcing addicts into recovery and using the “tough love” approach is why a number of addicts relapse soon after completing a program.2 Instead of using force and coercion, showing that recovery is an attractive alternative to active addiction is much more effective. After all, you attract more flies with honey than vinegar.
Bail the Addict Out of Every Sticky Situation
When it comes to those closest to us, we tend to be protective. This is especially true in parent-child relationships or other types of relationships in which one person is dependent on another. In most cases, our protective instincts are beneficial. Being protective ensures the well-being of our loved ones while also strengthening our relationships. However, when the one being protected is an addict, being overprotective can actually be more harm than help.
Enabling is a term that’s sometimes used to describe the relationship between an addict and a relative or close friend. In essence, a person enables an addict by overlooking the addict’s bad behavior, continually putting the addict’s needs first, blaming others for the addict’s misfortune, and serving as a buffer between the addict and the consequences of the addict’s actions.3 In most cases, a person doesn’t realize when he or she is enabling since the enabling behaviors are well-meaning. However, the problem with protecting an addict from the repercussions of his or her substance abuse is that those repercussions are usually what brings an addict to accept help and seek treatment. In other words, addicts are much less likely to embrace recovery if there are no real consequences to their substance abuse. It’s difficult to sit idly by and watch an addict suffer, but the alternative — protecting him or her from trouble — is tantamount to encouraging alcohol or drug abuse.
Expect an Overnight Recovery
It’s important to realign one’s expectations with what’s realistic and possible when it comes to an addict’s recovery. Much like an addiction doesn’t develop in a day, an addict can’t find recovery overnight. Recovery from addiction is a process that extends over many months and years. There’s a tendency for addicts’ loved ones to expect them to stop drinking alcohol and using drugs overnight or to expect them to be fully rehabilitated after a 30-day program, but there’s much more to it than that. Having unrealistic expectations puts unnecessary pressure on an addict, which can only hinder his or her ability to get sober.
Assume You Know Everything About Addiction
Last but certainly not least, you shouldn’t assume that addiction and recovery are as one-dimensional as they may appear. Like an onion, a substance use disorder has many layers with each layer involving different recovery needs. As well, there’s much variation between addicts when it comes to which types of treatments and which recovery resources work best. There’s also no way to predict how long an addict’s treatment process will take or whether he or she will stay sober indefinitely after one round of addiction treatment.
Many of the mistakes that people often make with regard to a loved one’s addiction can be mitigated by taking the time and making the effort to learn more about the disease. It may seem like a simple behavior, but addiction is an extremely complex, multifaceted disease, and we should all be learning as much about it as we can. The disease of addiction is not invulnerable. There are many things you can do to help an addict and encourage his or her recovery. For instance, if the addict isn’t ready to enroll in a treatment program, you might suggest that he or she take advantage of local harm-reduction programs currently available, including methadone maintenance and needle exchange programs. Although these aren’t abstinence-based programs, they’ll ensure that your addicted loved one has daily exposure to recovery resources and access to diverse programs. Hopefully, your loved one will then arrive at a place in life where they see the value in admitting their addiction and seeking help from a comprehensive treatment program.
If there’s anything you take away from this, hopefully you’ll realize that, while there are many mistakes people commonly make with regard to a loved one’s addiction, it’s possible to avoid them. As long as you’re willing to learn and you truly have the addict’s best interests at heart, you can be a major asset to your loved one’s recovery and well-being.
Written by Dane O’Leary