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Help the Addict You Love, With Love

Do you remain silent and stay with them or lecture and leave? Should you use tough love or walk softly?

Studio 5 Clinical Psychologist Dr. Liz Hale shares wisdom on the matter.


No one other than the addict himself is responsible for the substance use, and no one other than the addict can stop it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that once you have a realistic understanding of the power you do have as a loved one you can focus that power on the problem at hand and be very effective. I’ve seen families convince their alcoholic mother, who had been in denial for years, that she needed to address her alcoholism. I’ve witnessed a group of friends banning together to help another friend stop a dangerous heroine addiction. Do not underestimate how pulling together as family and friends can act as powerful change agent in your loved one’s life. Addicts are desperately in need of treatment, and desperately in need of someone to help them get that treatment.

So many times we are told that addicts need to hit bottom before they’ll accept help and embrace sobriety. But you know what, “bottom” for many addicts is death. Instead, raise “the bottom” to a more acceptable level, such as with, recurring job loss, ill health, or a series of failed relationships. That’s “bottom” enough!

The suggestions of boundaries is a great one, but those boundaries can’t always apply. For example, if your loved one uses cocaine, make the decision to refuse to be around them when they’re intoxicated, but welcome them when they’re not using cocaine. Or, you spend energy helping them do positive things like looking for a job or an apartment, but refuse to help when they need drug money. You encourage aspects of their thinking and behavior that are positive and aimed towards getting into treatment while discouraging those actions that aren’t.

Remain Proactive and Positive

So often we hear that you need to divorce yourself from the addict and just do whatever you can to protect yourself and not go down with them. While it’s true that one needs to protect themselves from being taken advantage of by another, both emotionally and financially, it’s equally as true, if not more so, that friends or family who take an active role in trying to save an addict from the wreckage of his or her life can have an enormous influence. The goal is to be proactive and positive, not reactive and rejecting. And, adhere to Melanie Tackett’s advice: attend Al-Anon to get the support and education you need.

We also hear that you can’t get someone to change unless they absolutely want to. That not matter how much you encourage, threaten, or demand they get help, unless they’re ready it won’t happen. There is some truth in that.

Remember: Addiction is Not a Choice

However, while you can’t physically or legally force an addict into a treatment program, as someone who loves them, you have every right to encourage the addict into treatment. And whether or not they are ready to change, there are some still some effective and potentially lifesaving steps you can take. What all the theories do agree on is this: once someone is addicted to a substance, he or she is no longer able to make decisions the way you and I do. The addiction damages the “choosing mechanism,” in the brain. Drugs and alcohol literally “hijack” the brain, physically and emotionally driving the addict to find, use, and maintain whatever drug they’ve chosen. No matter how logical and clear you are about why your family member should stop their addiction, they won’t fully comprehend your concern or experience. It doesn’t mean you give up on them or turn your back.

Do keep in mind that biology only explains “how” someone becomes an addict not “why.” What that means is that in order to help someone you have to address the other aspects of addiction – one’s social and emotional environment.

Strike While the Iron is COLD

To be honest, there is no one perfect way to approach and confront someone you care about, even if they are obviously addicted. What we do know, however, is that people who are the most successful at approaching loved ones about their addictions are those who express worries while at the same time express their love and concern – their positive feelings for the person. Now, timing is key! You want to strike while the iron is…cold! When your loved one is intoxicated or in withdrawals that’s not the best time. But when they’re feeling relatively well – and you are less panicked about the problem – sit down and share from the heart your concerns, in a low-key, non-threatening way. And never, ever stop sharing your love and concern.

An example of a conversation:
“Dad, thanks for meeting me for lunch today. I love spending time with you. But I wanted to share something with you that I’m concerned about; and that’s your drinking. You’ve been drinking a lot more lately and I think you’re depressed – you’re not even playing golf these days and that’s just not like you!”

Careful, Constructive Coercion

Particularly for a spouse of an addict, keep a few things in mind: 1) Never make threats you’re not willing and able to follow through on. Making empty threats doesn’t do anyone any good. 2) Think very carefully and unemotionally as possible before issuing any ultimatums. And, 3) present these ultimatums as lovingly and rationally as possible. If the only alternative to making these threats is to passively watch the addict kill him-or herself, you’re certainly better off trying whatever you tactic you have. Even if the addict reacts negatively, you will have at least put your concerns on the table and given him or he a specific, concrete way to move forward. But, sometimes you have to make a new decision about the relationship if the addict is not willing to be accountable for their addiction.

Additional Resources:

“Helping the Addict You Love,” by Laurence Westreich, M.D.


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