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Can I Help My Family Member or Friend with an Addiction?

Offering help

This is the most common question I hear as an addictions counselor (since 2001). The good news is~ YES, YOU CAN HELP YOUR LOVED ONE GET SOBER!

And, if your family needs immediate assistance, call Lana Isaacson, Couples and Family Therapist and Certified Addictions Counselor at:

I would like to briefly clarify the concepts of “sobriety”, “recovery”, and “the family disease” before I share what you CAN do to help your loved one. Understanding these terms can increase your understanding and effectiveness as a healthy helper.

I view sobriety as temporarily stopping the use of a substance or a behavior that has had negative or catastrophic consequences. Individuals can learn sober coping tools or a sober way of life through 12 step programs, treatment programs, and therapy, and this is a HUGE accomplishment!

Yet, stopping at sobriety from one’s drug of choice isn’t sustainable because the addict still feels a whole in his/her soul and thus will likely start using other substances or behaviors to fill it, live with depression, or worse may consider suicide.

Seeking recovery is more up to your loved one, yet even you can partially influence this process.  I view recovery as a significant internal healing process, which requires a commitment to working the 12 steps with a sponsor, an intensive treatment program, &/or another spiritual or personal growth path that allows an individual to
– “Uncover, discover, and discard everything we’re not, which makes finding and crossing the new bridge into a magnificent life we’ve never known before so much faster and easier.” (mentor, Bill C.)
– & experience self-love and forgiveness of others- true healing and freedom!

Recovery requires a lot more work than sobriety and reaps much greater benefits! The more you put into it, the more you get out of it.

The Family Disease of Addiction & Family Recovery
While your loved one has her/his work cut out for him/her and it’s natural to hope that your couple/family issues will be resolved by your loved one’s recovery work, partner and/or family participation in treatment and recovery work is critical in order for your loved one to have the best shot at long-term recovery and to resolve your couple/family issues. This is because addiction is a family disease with a family solution.

What does “the family disease of addiction” mean exactly? It means that when addiction is present, families unconsciously organize themselves around the addiction to keep it from overwhelming them or causing them too much pain, yet the addiction is adversely impacting everyone even if no one is talking about it. Family members tend to also feel stuck, suffer in silence due to shame keeping their family’s addiction a secret, and repeat the same attempted solutions that do not cultivate recovery… until they are willing to courageously seek help. There might also be other issues (that could be more frightening than the addiction) occurring in other family members or between family members, yet these other issues are often not addressed since everyone is focused on the addiction. Addiction also often goes hand in hand with codependency, which also has a deleterious effect on everyone in the family.

On the other hand, “couples and family recovery” is the process of change when drug use and codependency are not the organizing principles of the family. It also entails new family rules and processes that help family members to engage each other inside their family and outside in more honest and open interactions. While couples and family therapy requires COURAGE, relationship wounds can be addressed much more effectively and quickly when family members can work through past hurts and present challenges together with the help of an advanced trained marriage and family therapist. Family members in recovery are also likely participating in a support group, ex. Al-Anon or CoDA.

Here are 5 Things You Can Do to Help Your Loved One with an Addiction:

1. Work on your own recovery & self-care

This significantly increases your loved one’s chances of seeking treatment and provides growth and healing for you!

a.) Since addiction adversely affects everyone in a family, everyone in the family benefits from and deserves to heal. Family members often have resentments and hurt feelings they need to work through and personal areas of needed growth.

b.) “It’s no accident that every alcoholic [addict] has a supporting cast– literally supporting- as he [she] plays out his [her] drama. Without them, he would have had to face the consequences of his actions long before his dependency on drinking [drugs] could have developed into full-blown alcoholism [addiction]…The people around him, especially those who love him, step in to protect him from those consequences… By preventing the crises that might bring the alcoholic [addict] to treatment, his well-meaning family actually prolong the disease.”  
– Sharon Wegsheider Cruse

By working on your own recovery and self-care, you can break free from the “supporting cast” role you may have been playing in your family’s drama. You likely have heard the term “enabling”, but may not really understand the difference between enabling and helping. Here’s my blog on the difference: “I Thought I Was Helping. How to Differentiate Between Helping and Enabling”.

By participating in the free support groups of Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, CoDA, & Alateen, you will build your own toolbox for “emotional recovery”, which will help you disentangle yourself from your loved one’s addiction and work through struggles you have in other areas of your life. It’s important to note that folks with codependency find that they too need to work with a therapist, treatment program, and/or 12 step or other support group to change and heal (even if their loved one is in recovery). These programs also highly encourage family members to increase their self-care in order to shift one’s excessive focus from their loved one with an addiction to more balanced priorities of responsibilities, self-care and connection with all of one’s loved ones. Here is a link to a blog on self-care.

2. Allow your loved one to experience negative consequences and discomfort for their addiction & raise their bottom if necessary.

There’s a 12 step saying, “I wish you pain, desperation, and no other options.” Obviously, we don’t want our family member to experience pain, yet I don’t know anyone who sought recovery without it. Maybe you can at least get behind the “no other options” part? I heard over and over again by my clients who sought help at residential treatment centers that it wasn’t until every door was closed on them that they became willing to seek the help that the treatment center offered. Deep down, these individuals, like all of us, want health and happiness, but due to the power of addiction, they needed to face a consequence as serious as life on the streets before they would seek treatment. One of my relatives did not stop drinking until at age 68, he had a near death experience. Don’t allow your loved one’s addiction, which could be lethal, to go on this long.

It’s crucial that you stop your rescue and clean up efforts by stepping out of the way or “detaching with love” as is said in Al-Anon. Allow your loved one to experience natural consequences, such as relationship conflict or distancing from others, legal repercussions, reprimands at work, lack of freedom (taking away car keys if impaired), health issues, etc. to increase his/her motivation to seek treatment. Change happens when the pain outweighs the gain.

If consequences are not naturally forthcoming, think about your own leverage, which is also called “raising the bottom”. This is not to be manipulative, but natural as well. For example, if your partner is engaged in a dangerous addiction (or any other harmful behavior), it makes sense that you would not move forward with your relationship re: marriage, buying a house, having a child, etc. Think about what your family member most wants or would like to avoid in life since the opposite might be the thing that would motivate your partner to choose recovery, ex. s/he must move out or you will move out with the kids, file for separation, etc.

If even the most rewarding thing or avoiding the most painful thing no longer motivates your partner to seek sobriety or recovery, s/he needs treatment ASAP!

3. Calmly speak from your heart to your family member…

  • about your concerns regarding her/his addiction
  •  ask if you can support him/her in finding a treatment program or other type of resource
  • help in some other (non-enabling) way

4. Organize an Intervention or File a Petition for IC

Interventions have a very high success rate. Some interventionists say around 85%! Interventions reunite families and guide family members, friends, and people from the community to help their loved one begin treatment. Interventionists are knowledgeable about treatment programs across the U.S. and can help your your loved one choose the best fit for treatment. Both family members and friends can initiate an intervention and the IC process.

If your loved one is unwilling to voluntarily seek treatment, and you believe that s/he is a harm to herself and/or others when intoxicated, you can fill out an “involuntary commitment” (IC) petition. An IC petition, if approved, requires an individual to participate in residential treatment and other levels of care for a set number of days or that individual will have to do jail time. This may sound like an extreme action to take, yet wouldn’t you rather have the state require your loved one to get well at a treatment program versus allowing him/her to possibly injure or even kill someone? I also will never forget one of my clients telling me that he wished he had a relative who loved him enough to “IC” him because without an IC in place he was able to walk out of a treatment program and relapse.  

* If you need a referral for an Interventionist or would like more information about the IC Process- contact Lana at 720.432.5262.

5. Participate in Individual, Couples, and/or Family Therapy

  • Families in Recovery Therapy~ Family members have an opportunity to practice honest and open communication in order to heal from past trauma and resentments, request changes and boundaries they would like to see in the present, and restore trust, connection, and love with their family members.
  • Couples in Recovery Therapy~ Partners also need to discuss their resentments/past hurts and receive empathy and understanding from their partner. Couples can build a secure attachment with one another by practicing attachment-focused, experiential, and mindfulness exercises, and discuss their own recovery as individuals and as a couple. The correlation between successful individual recoveries and the health of the couple relationship is established in the research literature.
  • Individuals in Recovery Therapy~ ​Individuals (parents, spouses, adult children of addicts, siblings, friends, etc.) can benefit by having a safe environment to speak freely about their struggles with a family member or friend with an addiction. These folks can also feel understood, not judged, and offered compassion, especially if the therapist is trained in codependency and addiction and recovery. Family members can also experience more growth and healing from participating in a support group as well.