How To Help An Addicted Family Member

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What works and what doesn't work when trying to help the person you love.

When the tragic news broke that Oscar-winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman had died of a heroin overdose, it was reported his body had been found after missing an appointment to pick up his three young children from their mother, Mimi O'Donnell, his recently estranged girlfriend of 15 years. He was found in the apartment he was renting less than three blocks away from the home he shared with O'Donnell and their children, up until three months before. As details emerged we learned that after more than two decades of sobriety, the actor relapsed on prescription pills and heroin in May 2013 and it was O'Donnell who implored him to get help. A source said O'Donnell believed he was on the road to recovery following his recent rehab stint, and she was described as inconsolable upon hearing the news and devastated by the loss.

Loving an addict isn't easy. Addicts often manipulate and lie to the people closest to them in order to keep their disease alive. They tend to be self-absorbed, avoiding and impulsive. They are inconsistent, having difficulty meeting responsibilities, holding on to jobs, and following through on commitments they make. They often wreak havoc on family relationships, alienating significant others through constant disappointment, neglect, and embarrassment.

It is difficult for family members not to take the actions and attitudes of their loved one personally. That the addict won't just stop his or her behaviors out of their love for them or care for what they share together pains them. They live in constant fear of what will happen to the addict. They live in perpetual frustration of not being able to get through to the addict no matter how hard they try. They fight to hold on to their conviction that the real person they believe their loved one to be will come back, but constantly have their hopes dashed with one failed attempt at sobriety after another. Yet they suffer in silence because of the emotional neglect of the addict, and because of the shame they feel and fear no one can understand.

Significant others are usually consumed with pain, frustration, and fear by the time they come to see me, a mental health counselor with a specialty in treating significant others of addicts, for their initial session. They come wanting to borrow from my expertise, asking me:

"What can I do to make my loved one better?"

That's when I have to deal the devastating blow: "Nothing."

Addicts only get better when they themselves choose recovery, and actively continue to choose it every day, every moment. And it usually gets worse before it gets better. And it may never get better.

At this point my horrified client usually wants to know if that is the reality, what is the point of therapy for family members of addicts?

"Are you in recovery?" I ask, using the term commonly used in addiction to describe a person taking action daily to treat their problem.

"Me? Why me?! My loved one is the one with the problem. I'm not the sick one!"

At that point I say, "Let me ask you...who do you feel is suffering more right now: You, or the addict?"

Addiction is a family disease. It affects everyone in the family. And although no one can change the addict, what family members do can either enable the addiction to continue, or help facilitate its cessation and help the family recover.

Codependency is a term that was created by addiction professionals for a tendency they commonly observed in significant others of addicts. Codependency can be defined as: a pattern of trying to control others for their own good, which ends up being bad for oneself and the relationship. Many well-meaning family members out of their love for the person-in-need try to give to the addict or help them, only to find the problems get worse. And although the family member’s life often becomes consumed by anguish over repeatedly trying to help the addict but not getting the results they want, they tend to continue repeating the same ineffective pattern.

So how does a loving, caring family member effectively facilitate recovery for the addict, healing for themselves and healthy functioning for their family? By entering into a recovery of their own.

What Recovery For Significant Others Of Addicts Entails:

  1. Education—Despite their repetition of the behavior, most addicts don’t want to be addicts. Addiction is not just a physical dependency that happens within the body, it's a disease of the mind. It is a compulsive disorder based in self-deceptive thinking. The words commonly used to describe addiction are cunning, baffling and powerful. It defies logic and rationalization. That's why addicts usually can't "just stop" even when they want to. Since addiction is like another language from what people are used to, recovery is learning that language so you can properly engage it. Part of therapy for significant others is being educated about addiction—how to identify it and the variety of ways it manifests itself, as well as education about recovery- what it is and what is necessary to facilitate it.
  2. Management of Codependency—Because their emotional involvement often makes it difficult to be objective, significant others of addicts often need help identifying what is within their control and what is not, and what to do about each. What is in their control are their own actions and reactions. Examples are how they communicate with the addict, boundary setting, stopping enabling behaviors, creating consequences and putting the responsibility for recovery on the addict instead of absorbing it themselves. What is not within their control are the actions and reactions of the addict. The difficult work here is accepting their lack of control, coping with the objectionable behaviors and their inability to change it, and managing their uncertainty and fears of what will be- without their fear taking over their life or putting more strain on the relationship.
  3. Support—Since most people do not have the correct understanding of addiction, and addiction often carries a stigma, significant others of addicts often suffer in silence. Having support, especially from someone who understands, can be especially valuable. Not only is it emotionally gratifying, but engaging with others who are also doing the work of recovery helps one stay on the path of recovery themselves. The insight and encouragement of a peer is helpful in acting in new and healthy ways, and not losing yourself in the pain and frustration of addiction. Finding a safe environment to be open and honest about the pains and fears one experiences living with addiction is also crucial to the mental health and healing of the significant other.

There are lots of books and websites that can provide information on addiction and codependency. A psychotherapist trained in addictions could provide individualized attention, helping the person to explore dynamics within their family that could be contributing to the addiction, and help them come up with interventions that could be helpful in bringing about recovery.

And just as there are 12-step meetings for addicts to gain the tools of recovery and support in maintaining abstinence, there are 12-step meetings specifically for family members of addicts to gain the tools of recovery and support in maintenance of new behaviors. These meetings are free, are in almost every city, and occur everyday at a variety of times.

Addictions psychotherapy combined with meetings is an excellent way for loved ones to get the information, tools and on-going support they need to facilitate their own recovery as well as help them effectively engage in the recovery of the addict.

12-Step Meetings For Significant Others of Addicts:
Al-Anon (for family members of alcohol and drug addicts):, 888-425-2666
Gam-Anon (for family members of gambling addicts):, 718-352-1671
S-Anon (for family members of sex addicts):, 800-210-8141
CoDa (for individuals struggling with codependency):, 888-444-2359

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