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Family and Friends

Addiction is referred to as a "family disease" because the pain and suffering it causes is not limited to the alcoholic or drug addict. It is a progressive disease that, left unchecked, can result in chaos and frustration, broken trust, lost intimacy, abandonment, and financial problems. Families dealing with drug and alcohol problems are often stressed to the breaking point.

No family is born with the knowledge of how to deal effectively with substance use disorders. It is a skill that must be learned. Loving gestures such as covering for the addict or alcoholic when he can't go to work, bailing him out of jail, providing financial support, accepting the addict's rationales for drinking or using - all may serve to perpetuate the illness. Addiction can turn a family member's desire to help into enabling behavior that allows the disease to remain active and to progress.

Families and friends need information and support to survive a loved one's addiction. Below are some generally accepted principles for dealing with someone in active addiction. In considering these ideas, it is important to note that addiction is not a one-size-fits-all disease, and that some of these principles might appropriately be modified to accommodate your specific circumstances. The age of the addict, the existence of co-occurring mental disorders, and other unique circumstances may affect the way in which these principles should be applied. When dealing with a loved one's addiction, it is best to consult with a professional to discuss the unique circumstances of your situation.

  1. Learn the facts about substance use disorders. Addiction thrives in an environment of denial and a lack of understanding about the disorder. We can't begin to respond effectively to the symptoms of the disorder until we understand its characteristics and dynamics.

  2. Don't shield your loved one from the natural consequences of his or her disorder. In most cases, an addict must experience an accumulation of negative consequences before he or she is motivated to seek recovery. Don't lie, cover up, or make excuses for the alcoholic or addict.

  3. Don't make empty threats. Think carefully about the actions you are willing to take and don't set a boundary that you are unable or unwilling to carry through. Addiction is not affected by words; it responds to action. Idle threats do more harm than good, as they inform the addict or alcoholic that your words need not be respected and they increase your feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness, and betrayal.

  4. Don't expect promises to be kept. People in active addiction cannot keep promises. This is not because they don't intend to, but because they are powerless to consistently act upon their commitments. Promises made will likely be broken, leaving you feeling angry and betrayed.

  5. Don't argue, preach or lecture. This will cause your loved one to view you as the problem, rather than his or her using behavior. When you react, the addict or alcoholic will focus on your reaction rather than on his or her actions.

  6. Don't take on responsibilities that belong to the addict, or do for the addict anything that he or she would be capable of doing if sober. By doing otherwise, you give the addict permission to be irresponsible, and convince him or her that using or drinking isn't causing any problems.

  7. Don't give or loan money to people in active stages of addiction. Doing so provides them with resources to buy drugs or alcohol. Don't make payments that are the responsibility of the alcoholic or addict. This may include making mortgage, rent, and car payments.

  8. Refocus attention on yourself, your family, and your life responsibilities. Learn how to emotionally detach from your addicted loved one's behavior, and reclaim your happiness and peace. Al-Anon and Nar-Anon offer 12-step programs of recovery for family and friends that can help you get your life back despite your addicted loved one's self destructive behavior.

  9. Get support. Family and friends need support to survive the chaos and emotional trauma caused by addiction. Find a support group or family therapist to help you deal with the situation. Go to Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meetings where you will find people like you - family and friends of people struggling with substance use disorders - learning to deal with the disease and to support each other.

The following web sites offer more helpful information:
Families in Recovery
SMART Recovery
Nar-Anon Family Groups
Al-Anon Family Groups
Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, Inc.
Co-Dependents Anonymous