woman together with a loved-one struggling with addiction walking on the beach

If your loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder, you’re far from alone. In fact, an estimated 18.5 million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Millions of us struggle with pain pills, booze, and even illegal street drugs. Unfortunately, most of us also never get help. When we do, it takes months or even years, interventions, and sometimes long waits for treatment.

That’s why nearly half of all Americans have a loved one struggling with a substance use disorder. Unfortunately, that can also be difficult, painful, and even traumatic. Addiction changes people. They get manipulative, they withdraw, they engage in risk-taking behavior, and they stop offering or giving support. Living with a loved one succumbing to addiction means dealing with the trauma of losing your loved one to an illness – even temporarily. At the same time, it often means dealing with that alone, because so many of us treat addiction as shameful and refuse to share it or talk about.

Coping with your loved one’s addiction means reaching out, getting support, and giving yourself space and boundaries.

Acknowledge that This is Traumatic

Addiction is traumatic. That remains true whether or not your loved one withdraws, becomes aggressive, or engages in abusive or manipulative behavior. Chances are, as an addict, they do all three. But, it’s not necessary for you to feel grief and trauma. Someone you love is gone. The person you knew may never come back. Even when they seek out treatment, they may be a different person. You can adapt to that and continue to love them for whoever they become, but you will never have the old days back.

That’s important because it’s okay to feel sad about it. It’s okay to experience grief about it. You can and should seek out therapy and counseling if you’re having difficulty with it. It’s important that you give yourself the space to feel badly about it. At the same time, you can share that with your loved ones, but you probably shouldn’t share it with the person who is sick.

Acknowledge and Discard Guilt and Stigma

Socially, we’re trained to feel a sense of shame around substance use disorders. We are taught they are a sign of personal failure. We are taught they are caused by lapses in judgement, poor personal choice, and character flaws. Of course, we know that isn’t the case. Substance use disorders are a combination of a vast number of problems, ranging from mental health disorders like anxiety and depression, to vulnerabilities like trauma, stress, and genetic disposition. Substance use disorders are complex mental health disorder with physical complications and any hospital will treat it as such. It’s not something to be ashamed about. Your loved one isn’t weak, they are sick.

Acknowledging the social stigma and choosing to purposely discard it can help you to be more confident. It can help you to avoid feeling guilt or shame. And, it can give you the confidence to move forward without lying for your loved one or hiding their addiction.

The same holds true with guilt. Unless you bought your loved one substances and handed them to them again and again, you did not contribute to their addiction. Your relationship might have, but that’s for a therapist or for them to figure out. Blaming yourself is neither useful, nor helpful. In fact, it can get in the way of your loved one finding motivation and grounds to seek out help and to recover on their own. Why? Getting help means taking accountability for your own choices and situation.

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Set Boundaries and Stick to Them

a psychologist discussing setting up boundaries to a woman who has a loved-one struggling with addiction

Good boundaries are crucial to navigating any difficult situation. That remains true whether your loved one has anxiety or a substance use disorder. It means setting aside time for yourself. It means saying no when you’re uncomfortable. It also means refusing to budge on your boundaries, because once they slide, they might as well not exist.

Boundaries also don’t have to be complicated. They can look like:

  • I won’t wait up for you
  • I will cook dinner for you but the family won’t wait for you to eat it
  • If you fall asleep on the porch, I’ll bring you a blanket but I won’t try to get you inside
  • I will come pick you up at reasonable times if it’s an emergency, but I won’t be your ride to parties
  • I won’t tolerate substance abuse in the house
  • I need you to carry Naloxone at all times
  • I will not give you money or pay your rent

These types of boundaries are often associated with the term “detaching with love”. This term means you step back, you make space for yourself, and you decide what is and is not okay around you.

This is also a tactic that can help you to avoid enabling behavior. Enabling behavior is the process of stepping up to help someone in such a way that it allows them to continue a substance use disorder. For example, if you pay their rent, if you lie to their workplace, or if you constantly bring them groceries and clean their house.

Getting Help Yourself

It might seem counterintuitive to seek out help when it’s your loved one that needs help, but the truth is, you likely need it to. Watching your loved one go through an addiction is traumatic. You’re helpless. You might be the brunt of frustration, mood swings, and abusive behavior. You’re certainly going through a time in which you are scared, uncertain, and unable to do something. Talking to people can help. Of course, your friends and family aren’t always the best choice, they can help but only so much.

  • Talk to friends and family, especially those around your loved one. Try to set up a support group so you can get help when you need it. Be open and honest
  • Consider support groups like Al-Anon and SMART Recovery, which both offer group self-help for the family members and relatives of individuals with a substance use disorder. This can be immensely helpful because it gives you a place to talk to others who are going through the same thing as you.
  • Consider going to family therapy, especially if you have children. A substance use disorder can cause trauma, it can dramatically upset family dynamics, and it can cause underlying issues. Family therapy works to restore relationships by allowing you to recognize problematic behaviors and build new, healthier ones.
  • You also want to consider going to therapy yourself. You’re the best judge of how well you’re handling something, but if you’re reading this article, chances are, you’re not feeling very good about it. A therapist can help you to move through how you feel, why you feel that way, and what you can do about it. And, they can recognize trauma and signs of strain and help you to cope with it before it becomes an ongoing problem.

Millions of Americans are addicted to substances. Whether that’s prescription medication, alcohol, or illicit drugs doesn’t matter. Addiction changes people, it changes their relationships, and it changes the lives of those around them. Acknowledging that and taking steps to give yourself space, to get help, and to give yourself time to heal are important for coping with it.

Hopefully, your loved one gets into treatment. Until then, remember to take care of yourself as well.

If you want to learn more, the Gooden Center is here to help. We offer substance abuse treatment and primary mental health treatment for men and women. Contact us today to speak to an experienced advisor in complete confidence.

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