Addiction: What To Do If You Love An Addict

Realism is a crucial concept when it comes to recovery from addiction.  AA understands this so well that when someone slips (resumes their addictive behavior) they assume the best; namely, that he or she will get back in the saddle and regain their sobriety.

All addictions are the same, in that they are obsessive-compulsive disorders.  It doesn’t matter whether you are addicted to pornography, alcohol, heroin, pot, over eating, shopping, gambling, or collecting toy trains. All have one primary function: To push undesirable emotions out of your conscious awareness.  If they worked we would all be happy addicts, an oxymoron if there ever was one.   What they do is exacerbate life’s challenges.

Anyone who has ever been mired in addiction knows the short-term high or relief isn’t worth the long-term pain.  The havoc wreaked on your self-concept, the financial losses, legal troubles, social consequences, family issues, physical effects, and spiritual wasteland, all conspire to make one feel lower than a snake’s wiggle.

But you know all that.  This is about the process of recovery.

Sometimes, doing the math provides a welcome reality check.  If your loved one was drinking daily for years and now they go on a bender a few times a year that’s major progress. Showing disdain for their imperfection will only lead them to depression as they will see themselves through your eyes: a failure. Depression can trigger a relapse.  Most alcoholics are perfectionists, and they are quick to put themselves down.  If you start the ball rolling, because you have unrealistic expectations for their progress, they will usually push it all the way downhill into a full-blown setback. In spite of that, because people are generally strong, resilient, and optimistic, they will get back on the horse and start fresh.

Please, if you love someone who is addicted to anything and is trying to revamp their life, understand that recovery is not linear.  A slip is not the beginning of the end.  There are only a tiny fraction of addicts who are able to stop their addiction cold turkey on the first try and never resume it.  AA has the right approach: one day at a time.  Addict or not, that’s great advice. None of us can predict how we will feel tomorrow, let alone a year down the road.

No in-patient program will miraculously “cure” your loved one of their addiction, because they have to live in the real world not the artificial environment of a treatment program. While 28 day programs can be very useful, if they become a revolving door they have outlived their utility.

We all know how challenging life can be, but when you add an addiction it can feel insurmountable.  Reflect on your own issues.  If you can find compassion for yourself, extend some of that to your loved one.  (That’s a big “if,” because most of us have a very difficult time showing ourselves unconditional love and kindness.  If you don’t practice loving-kindness towards yourself,  try attending to your own issues and focusing less on the addict’s.)

Berating a user will only insure a slip, so refrain from blame.  If there’s too much water under the bridge, and your anger and resentment are overwhelming,  heal yourself before you try to help your loved one.  Continuing to try to be there for someone else when you aren’t able to be there for yourself is not going to help anyone.

If you haven’t amassed a boat load of recriminations, be present as your friend or family member faces their challenges. Be supportive, loving, and have faith in their desire to live without addiction.  I have never met an addict who didn’t want sobriety. But everyone I have worked with has been scared to death that they didn’t have what it takes to navigate life without drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.  Simple words like, “I am here for you.  I know you can do it.  You can count on me.” can make the difference between staying on one’s program or slipping into the abyss.

Feeding the addict’s shame is a sure-fire way to trigger a retreat into addictive behavior.  They already have enough shame and guilt to sink a flotilla.  That is why separating yourself if you feel furious is far better than “trying to help.”  Help yourself.  It may sound counter-intuitive,  but it really is the best course of action.

Focus on tangible behaviors like: “I asked if you would pick up the kids from school, you didn’t, and I had to leave work.”  Rather than, “You are such an unreliable, useless bit of protoplasm.  I can’t believe I let myself trust you again. What an idiot I am.  You only think of yourself and where your next fix is coming from.” Actually, that’s true for all addicts. It’s addiction in a nutshell: obsessing until you can fulfill your compulsion. Expecting an addict not to behave like one is like expecting pigs to fly.

While you may not be able to empathize with someone who has been shooting heroin, because that’s not part of your history, you can certainly understand how it feels to set a goal and falter.  Didn’t you fall when you learned to ride a bike?  Didn’t you misspell words when starting to write? Didn’t you ever leave a pan on the stove? We all make mistakes; especially, when learning something new.  Sobriety is new for an addict.  Expect them to be like you: a fallible, human being.

As with everything else we master, there are cycles of  success and failure.  Just as you can’t speak fluent French after just one lesson, an addict often needs multiple slips before he or she can stay clean and sober.  In so many areas of life we see how the quest for perfection actually impedes our progress.  But, somehow, when it comes to addiction, we think perfect sobriety is the only valid proof of success.

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation:  someone is sober 350 days a year, but had three times when they drank for five days each.  Are they successful or failing?  Clearly, they are making enormous progress.  Yes, there’s still room for improvement; but, who among us can say we have been as successful when tackling our own issues?  How many are in debt because of unchecked spending habits?  How many want to soften angry outbursts but still find themselves unleashing furiously?  How many face demons like procrastination? Wouldn’t we all think we had succeeded if we were in control 350 days out of 365?

Another major impediment for friends and family dealing with addicted loved ones is unrealistic expectations.  There’s nothing that makes people angrier, grief stricken and hopeless than feeling disappointed, and there’s nothing that insures disappointment better than unrealistic expectations.  We’re dealing with addiction here.  A process that involves the whole person: mind, body, and spirit.  It is really, really hard to conquer an obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Contrary to our Calvinist founders, gentleness leads to progress far more than harshness.   The only thing criticism will trigger is the desire to drink or use.

Of course, if you are living with an addict, and they are inebriated or high most of the time, the best advice might be learning to set boundaries. Being understanding doesn’t mean you allow someone to steal from you, or harm you in any way.  Taking care of yourself is your number one priority. You may want to try an Al-Anon meeting, as it  can help you maintain some balance, and set limits, as well as provide a supportive community.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang


Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.