1. You need support.
You’re carrying the burden of your loved one’s addiction in the form of resentment, stress and helplessness. Your feelings matter! You need encouragement to feel better and advice to ensure you help is helpful.
You probably obsess over the days when they weren’t addicted, unable to understand what happened to the person you loved. You’re not alone.
2. There is always hope!
Millions of people that once struggled now live happy, productive lives without drugs and alcohol. Whether you’re first admitting they may have a problem or you’ve been living in the pain for years, everyone can heal.
What is addiction?
Addiction is a chronic brain disease. In the simplest definition, a disease is something that changes cells in a negative way. Addiction changes how cells in the brain communicate, which re-wires how a person thinks, feels and behaves. The brain then depends on the drugs or alcohol to function.
Over time, the body needs the drugs and alcohol to function. Without it, harsh and potentially deadly withdrawal symptoms kick in (like nausea and seizures). Continuing to use is the quickest way to stop feeling sick.
Drugs and alcohol become their “go-to” coping skill for triggers like stress, disappointment or even boredom. They don’t know any other way to deal with their feelings. Underlying mental health issues (like anxiety) make things worse.
Life feels meaningless in the cycle of getting, using and withdrawing. Consequences (like hurting you, missing out, job loss or arrests) makes it worse. Until they live independently and finding real purpose, change seems trivial.
Enabling is a natural response. It feels like helping but ultimately prolongs the suffering.
The best rule is to not do something for someone if they can and should be able to handle it themselves sober. When you “help” by covering when they miss events or giving them money, you’re not helping them escape the disease, but escape responsibility. Enabling let’s them live more comfortably in addiction at your expense.
Enabling is covered in much more detail in Session 3 of HopeTracker.
Relapse doesn’t mean failure! While you may feel disappointed and angry, try to stay positive. They already feel ashamed. Ideally, they continue to pursue a sober life and learn from the mistake.
If not, don’t downplay or support anything less than a real plan. This could involve trying sober living, attending daily meetings or even going back to rehab. They need to be doing whatever it takes.
More than 65% of relapses occur in the first three months. Addressing red flags up front (like skipping therapy or isolating), helps minimize the destruction.
When the body has too much of a drug or combination of drugs (including alcohol) to cope with at one time, it causes overdose. Oxygen is not able to reach the brain, leading to coma, seizures and, ultimately, death. Sadly, overdose is now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50.
Narcan is a medication you can keep on-hand to reverse an overdose. In most states, it’s available over-the-counter from any pharmacy.
You may focus on stopping drugs or alcohol, but maintaining long-term sobriety requires changing behaviors, coping skills, motivations and relationships. It’s a whole new outlook. That’s what recovery means.
It’s unrealistic to expect they go back to the person they were or the life they had before addiction. They’ve experienced things, and your relationship has changed. Managing this disease must be a priority in their life (forever).
Going to detox for 3-10 days, then 30 days in rehab and continuing some form of outpatient therapy for another 3+ months is the answer. That may sound overwhelming. But, trying to skip steps to get a quicker fix only prolongs the suffering — often for years.
Treatment involves intense therapies (from typical one-on-one sessions to specialties like EMDR for trauma). The latest medicines stabilize the brain and address underlying imbalances.
Treatment (including costs and aftercare) is covered in much more detail in Session 5 of HopeTracker.
If you’re waiting for your loved one to want treatment on their own, know that most people go after an open discussion.
How to get your loved one to treatment is covered in much more detail in Session 6 of HopeTracker.
The Most Important Questions
No one chooses to be an addict. Before they realized it, the disease took them from a doctor’s prescription or fitting in with friends to full-blown obsession.
A combination of factors contribute to why or how quickly addiction escalates — genetics, trauma, stress, exposure at a young age and underlying mental health issues. These may be used as excuses. (ex: I drink because I have social anxiety).
While a big part of treatment involves identifying and healing from these core issues, families often get so caught up in the “why?” that it keeps them from moving forward or acting out of guilt. Be sure to stay more focused on the solution than the problem.
The power of choice is lost. It’s no longer a matter of wanting to get high. Drugs and alcohol become a need for survival, like food, shelter and sleep in a way that you can’t understand.
The idea that “they would stop if they really loved me” is not true. In fact, the intense shame they feel for hurting you subconsciously drives them further into drugs and alcohol.
Accept that this not something they can overcome on their own and push for comprehensive treatment to address the complex disease and underlying mental health issues (like depression or trauma).
No one is powerful enough to cause someone else’s drug or alcohol problem.
If you find yourself obsessing over the what-ifs and all the things you “should have” done differently, know that worry and guilt only make the situation worse. It causes us to focus on keeping our loved one happy and “making up” for the past, rather than focusing on long-term sobriety and maintaining your own mental health.
Accepting that you’re powerless over their addiction is the first step in letting go of guilt and shame. They need to take responsibility for their health and behaviors. It’s not your fault.
- You didn’t cause it.
- You can’t control it.
- You can’t cure it.
Support without enabling! Offer help that encourages accountability and a healthy, sober lifestyle. Don’t make excuses for their behavior.
As long as you’re not making it easier for them to continue to use or avoid dealing with consequences, they need all the love and positivity they can get.
As an example, don’t lend your car to your son so he doesn’t have to walk to a dangerous neighborhood to buy drugs. Instead, offer him a ride to a sober meeting.
The 5 Things You Should Do
- Get educated
- Attend support groups
- Participate in family therapy
- Keep healthy communication open that stresses sobrity
- Take care of yourself and your own needs
Some Final Advice
Donny Sutton CAI-II, CRS, CFLCCertified Interventionist & Family Coach
Success stories never involves just one person. As parents and spouses, stop asking why your loved one keeps using and start asking what needs to change and how. There’s always more going on then you’re aware of.
Ashley Bassett LCSWClinical Supervisor
Knowing what to say and do in these situations doesn’t come naturally. You learn how to appropriately act and react by attending support groups, seeing a therapist, doing research and plain old trial-and-error.
You're Not Alone
My 25-year-old son Sam is tall, handsome, bright and charming. He is also an alcoholic and a drug addict. During high school, we assumed Sam was going through a phase and blamed his friends. But, when he returned from college two years later, we had to confront one of the worst nightmares a parent can face. Sam was in hell already, and we were about to join him there.
Sam’s sickness was mirrored in our family. He was in a state of denial, and we were in denial too. He was suffering, and we were suffering. Our nerves were raw, and many nights we cried ourselves to sleep. We went through all the emotions of terror, shame, humiliation and disbelief. We remembered the sweet child Sam had been, and we were determined things would turn out OK.
After four months, outpatient treatment was not cutting it. At a family counseling session, my husband and I laid out the choices — either immediately go to rehab or leave the room and never see us again. We were tense and emotionally drained. We didn’t know what to expect, but we weren’t bluffing. We meant every word, and Sam knew it. It was the hardest decision I ever made, but we couldn’t watch him continue his senseless existence.
Two years later, his recovery continues. He finished college and is working full-time helping others struggling with addiction. He has renewed faith and a sense of purpose. He’s on a mission to educate everyone we know that addiction can happen to anyone and, no matter what, there’s always hope.- Aubrey L.
We’re told to be supportive, but my question was always “when does she start taking responsibility? When does the disappointment stop?” I have three amazing children. I went to exhausting lengths to make things as normal as possible for them, while their mom couldn’t hold a job or be trusted. And, they saw her passed out on the couch and sedated in the hospital on more than one occasion.
The disease took a toll on me. I didn’t want to see the family split up, but I had little faith she was going to stay sober. I was afraid this was going to be my life. I (unhelpfully) threatened divorce several times, but I never could bring myself to do it. I loved her.
With the help of our fourth marriage counselor, I convinced her to attend a rehab I pre-arranged in Florida. She spent 30 days there, plus another 30 days in sober living. I could finally see the person I fell in love with. While it was not the original plan, I decided to move with the kids down to Florida instead of her coming back. We both felt the risk of her slipping back to her old ways was too high when she was already doing so well here.
It’s been a year since the move. Except for the two support meetings every week, you’d never know she had a problem. She’s kept a job for the last nine months. She never misses the kid’s soccer games. She is the mom and wife we’ve always needed. There are still some scars, but the future for our family is bright.- Sean A.
After Dad left us, Mom started drinking. It wasn’t that bad at first, but everything spiraled out of control once she lost her job. Alcohol began to consume her. She stopped caring about her health and her appearance. Eventually, it got to the point where I was embarrassed to bring friends over or go in public with her.
Before I knew it, I was putting my life on the back burner. I quit track and instead rushed home after school to see if she was ok; to see if she made it through another day. I cooked dinner. I did the laundry. I picked up a night shift job. I was forced into adulthood sooner than I should’ve been, and I was emotionally and physically drained.
It wasn’t until she finally agreed to treatment that I started to have hope. Although it’s only been a few months, I can already see a change. What matters most is that she feels the change. She realizes the toll she’s put on me, and we’re working on rebuilding our relationship. It’s comforting to know she’s finally in a good, stable place.- Jane J.
Josh and I are only one year apart, so we pretty much did everything together until I left for college. Our relationship changed, and we weren’t talking every day like we used to. When I did try to call him, he would avoid me. My parents told me he had a new group of friends and was barely ever home. His grades started slipping and he was at risk of not graduating. Then I found out through one of his friends that he was smoking pot and taking pills.
I never had to deal with something like this before. Desperate to get my brother back, we searched for professional help and convinced him that this was the only option he had. He didn’t go to treatment wanting to get sober, but we were hoping he would change his mind once he got there. I took a semester off of school to be home with my parents because I could tell they really needed to get through this as a family. Plus, being away made me feel helpless.
This is us, two years later. We’ve had our ups and downs, and we’ve been through some pretty tough relapses, and even an overdose. But somehow, through it all, we never lost hope because we saw how persistent he was to get better. He is currently celebrating 8 months of recovery!- Kate C.