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If your partner, sibling, parent, or child is addicted to drugs or alcohol, you’re a lot less alone than you feel. Today, an estimated 43.6 million Americans aged 12 or older or 16% of the population struggles with a substance use disorder. This means that one in four Americans has a close relative or loved one with an addiction. As unfortunate and as heartbreaking as that is, it’s a fact of life, and it is something to try to understand, so that you can take care of yourself and your family while you try to get your loved one into treatment.
Understanding and working to manage the emotions you feel around that can also be complicated. That’s especially true if you also have mental health problems or a history of substance abuse. In addition, it’s important to step back and acknowledge that dealing with your loved one having an addiction is traumatic – because that will allow you the room to get help where you need it yourself.
Nearly everyone who lives and loves an addict feels some level of guilt and responsibility for that person’s addiction. Sometimes, that might be because you made choices that resulted in that person using to begin with. For example, you might have introduced them to a drug or started them drinking, or drug them along while you had problems with drinking or drugs. In other cases, guilt is more about what your loved one says to you. If you didn’t ask so much, if life weren’t so stressful, if you were a better parent/sibling/lover they wouldn’t need substances.
While, in some cases, it’s important to take responsibility for actions that may have led someone to use – and to apologize and to be sure to do better in the future, you can never be responsible for someone using or drinking right now. That person made some choices which helped lead them to an addiction. However, we now know that addicts do not choose addiction. But eventually, they have to take responsibility for their own recovery because, otherwise, they won’t have the motivation or the determination to get clean or sober.
It doesn’t matter how many times you try to help, how many times you cover for them, how many times you try to get them to go to rehab – nothing helps. In some cases, you might even have sat up and had long heartfelt conversations only to have them immediately leave that conversation and get drunk or high. You might also have emotionally exhausted yourself on asking them to take care of themselves and your relationship – only to be met with what feels like coldness or uncaring.
Addiction changes how people feel emotions and quite often, the first thing it does is it changes how people respond in social situations. Even if someone desperately wants to do better, a behavioral addiction can mean that they’re trapped repeating the same pattern of substance abuse. That can be intensely frustrating, especially if you can’t get them into rehab or they aren’t ready to commit.
Feeling frustrated can result in anger, over-controlling, and fighting. It’s important to try to avoid that for you and your mental health. One strategy to avoid feeling frustrated is to detach with love, where you essentially accept that you’re not going to be able to help your loved one for now and that you will love them as they are, without expectations, until they are ready to recover. That can be intensely difficult, especially as you may not even be aware of what expectations you have of your loved one, but it can help.
Losing a loved one to addiction can feel a lot like actually losing your loved one. In a way, it is. There is no chance that you will ever get your loved one back the way they were before the addiction. That can lead to feelings of grief. It’s also important to acknowledge that grief and to allow it – you aren’t getting your loved one back as they were, you should have the right to grieve that.
You can also feel hopeless about getting your loved one into treatment. Their situation may only seem to get worse. Any attempt you make at getting them clean or sober may end up in relapse and a worse situation than before. What do you do? Is it hopeless?
You can’t change someone else’s behavior. You’re not in control here. And, no matter how much you want to, you can’t fix this for them. The only thing you can do is step back and offer support where you can, promise to help them into rehab, and wait for them to want help. That can be incredibly painful and it is important that you have people to talk to – whether your friends and family, a support group like Al-Anon, or a therapist.
You might be surprised to realize that no matter how much you care for your loved one and want to support them, you probably still feel shame about their behavior. Most of that is socialization. You’ve been taught that addiction is a weakness, that it is a moral failing, and that only bad people are addicts. That’s all a lie – addiction is a behavioral disorder, it can happen to anyone, including grandparents, after they come home from the hospital from a him replacement. It’s okay that you feel shame and it’s okay that you feel the weight of social stigma. However, it’s also important that you acknowledge that it is just social stigma and you want ot be there for your loved one anyway, that you want to support them, and that you aren’t going to hide them or their substance abuse.
If you’re solely responsible for taking care of your loved one, it can be addictive. Eventually, taking care of someone with an addiction means they are fully reliant on you. You’re taking care of them, and it might actually make you feel good. You might feel stress at the thought of them no longer needing you. You might pour so much of yourself into taking care of your loved one that you put your own wants and needs aside. And, when it comes down to it, you might find yourself enabling their addiction, not because you want them to be addicted but because you’re afraid you’ll lose them if they no longer need you to take care of them. That might sound extreme, but more than 40 million Americans are thought to be codependent, meaning that this side-effect of caring for a loved one is almost as common as addiction itself.
If that sounds like you, it’s important to get therapy and treatment, because you need help separating your wants and needs and your need for approval and love from being able to take care of someone.
Living with a loved one struggling with addiction can be extremely difficult. It can also cause stress, pain, and trauma. You might feel hopeless and helpless. You might try to take control and try to fix everything for them. You might be tempted to give up and walk away. Whatever you’re feeling, it is valid. However, it’s also important to sit down, think about what you want for your relationship and your loved one, and to decide what you want to do – and then adjust your life and your boundaries so that you can comfortably share life with them while they move towards a place that allows recovery.
If you or a loved one is seeking help for alcohol or other substance abuse, contact us at Stairway Resource Center today. At Stairway Resource Center we provide a 60 to 90-day outpatient program that takes place in an engaging and supportive community setting. We offer dual diagnosis treatment and daily group and individual therapy for our clients, in addition to fun community-based events and activities.