Love an addict? Here’s what you need to know.
“Addiction isn’t about substance – you aren’t addicted to the substance, you are addicted to the alteration of mood that the substance brings.” ~Susan Cheever
If you’ve ever dealt with an addict, you know it can be painful and difficult for all involved. I’ve put together this Q&A that offers a glimpse into what the families of addicts deal with, as well as some vital answers that you’ll need to know if you’re dealing with one now.
If you’re dealing with a narcissist who is also an addict, you might want to check out this page. Stay tuned through the end of the post for a list of resources for addiction-specific help.
Give Yourself a Break
You are likely feeling a compendium of emotions right about now, teetering between wanting to love your addict better and wanting to run as far and fast away as possible. Feelings of love, hate, sorrow and even elation can cycle through you faster than the bad tuna you ate last week.
So let’s start here: there are only a few things you can really do to help your addict right now. If he is in the throes of addiction, you need to take it step by step.
Begin by taking a little advice from AddictionandRecovery.com:
These are the ways you can help the addict in your family.
- Educate yourself on addiction and recovery.
- Try not to accuse or judge. Avoid name calling. This is a difficult time for both of you.
- Provide a sober environment that reduces triggers for using.
- Allow the addict time to go to meetings.
- Understand that your lives will change. Do not wish for your old life back. Your old life to some extent is what got you here. You both need to create a new life where it is easier to not use alcohol or drugs.
- Make sure that you both have time for fun. People use alcohol and drugs to relax, escape, and as a reward. The addict needs to find alternative ways to relax, escape, and as a reward otherwise they will turn back to their addiction.
- Do not enable. Do not provide excuses or cover up for the addict.
- Do not shield the addict from the consequences of their addiction. People are more likely to change if they have suffered enough negative consequences.
- Set boundaries that you all agree on. The goal of boundaries is to improve the health of the family as a whole. Do not use boundaries to punish or shame.
- If you want to provide financial support, buy the goods and services the addict needs instead of giving them money that they might use to buy alcohol or drugs.
- Recognize and acknowledge the potential the addict has within them.
- Behave exactly as you would if your loved one had a serious illness. What would you do if they were diagnosed with heart disease or cancer?
Q: My husband, Steve, is addicted to pain pills. He was in a car accident last year and had many injuries. After losing his job, he started relying more on the pain pills and refuses to get treatment for his addiction.
I’m worried about the impact his addiction is having on our two children.
Our daughter, Jessica, is only seven years old. Our son, Jamie, is ten years old. They’re having a hard time understanding what is happening to my husband, and they’re asking a lot of questions. My daughter keeps asking about the pills she sees him take every day. I want to tell them the truth about his pills, but I’m scared.
How can I tell my children the truth about my husband’s addiction?
A: Addiction can hurt the entire family, especially young children, so your desire to protect them is important. Young children are naturally curious, and they’re also worried about their father.
Your children already suspect something serious is happening, so it’s important to address it. Their questions will continue until they get answers from you or someone else.
Children have a remarkable ability to spot lies from their parents. It’s important to tell them the truth about your husband’s addiction. However, the conversation must be age appropriate. First, though, try to determine how much they understand about Steve’s addiction and go from there.
Jessica and Jamie are young, but they’re still able to pick up on your emotions and issues. This is why it’s important to carefully discuss the addiction with them.
Q: How do I start the conversation about Steve’s addiction with my children? I’m worried I’ll say the wrong thing and Steve will get upset. I’m also worried the children won’t understand.
A: You may want to talk to your children alone, so Steve’s presence doesn’t influence the conversation. It’s important to pick a time for the conversation that is calm and free from other arguments.
Your children need to be reassured that you and Steve love them, but they also need to hear the truth. You may want to start the conversation by bringing up the questions your daughter keeps asking about the pills. This will help you transition the talk to the addiction without it seeming like an odd choice.
An age-appropriate conversation will help your children better understand what is happening in the household. They already suspect something is going on, so you can’t ignore the issues.
Your children are aware of Steve’s accident and have seen his injuries. You can talk about how he started to take the pills for his injuries. It’s important to keep the language of the conversation age-appropriate and use simple terms.
You may want to mention that addiction is a disease. Your children will probably remember their last cold. You can use this to explain that there are different types of illnesses and diseases. Steve is sick and needs treatment, so it’s crucial they understand that this isn’t normal behavior.
You also want to leave time at the end of the conversation for Jessica and Jamie to ask questions. This will help them feel like they’re being heard and understood.
Q: I don’t understand why Steve isn’t worried about the children learning the truth. Steve’s addiction has progressed to the point that he doesn’t care what he does in front of the children. He takes his pills in front of them. He argues and fights with me in front of them. He even took our son with him to pick up pills from a friend.
What can I do to show Steve the children are being hurt by his behavior? He was always a great father, and I feel like his love for them could help him overcome the addiction.
A: First, it’s important to remember that opiate addiction can change a person’s behavior in many ways. It’s also important to keep in mind that addiction can change your entire family structure.
Steve still loves the children and you, but the addiction is stopping him from making good decisions. Addiction can actually change brain chemistry.
Steve’s addiction to pain pills makes it difficult for him to see how he is hurting the family. He may not be aware of how his actions are affecting the children. However, even if he is aware, he can’t stop or change because of the addiction.
You can’t control the addict, and you can’t blame yourself for his blindness toward the children.
Showing Steve the impact his addiction is having on the children may not be enough for him to change his behavior. His desire to overcome the addiction must come internally for it to last and work.
Steve can get better, but it will take time and effort for him to move past the addiction.
Q: I know my daughter is going to ask why we can’t take him to a doctor. She always wants to take anyone who is sick to the doctor. She can be very persistent.
How do I explain to my daughter that Steve doesn’t want to go to the doctor or get treatment? I’m worried that she will make Steve angry with her ideas.
A: Children don’t like seeing their parents sick or hurt, so Jessica is simply trying to help. In her own way, she thinks a doctor can cure or save Steve. However, it’s important to talk to your daughter and address this topic.
First, you may want to acknowledge her feelings and state that you understand why she wants to help.
Next, you want to help her understand that Steve isn’t ready to go to a doctor. Steve is an adult and can’t be forced to seek treatment.
You also want to make sure that Jessica remembers it’s not her fault that Steve is sick. She also needs to know that she can’t fix his addiction. As you discuss his disease, you want to avoid blame.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself! Check out these self-care tips from AddictionAndRecovery.org:
- Take care of yourself. Living with an addict is exhausting. You also need time to recover.
- Avoid self-blame. You can’t control another person’s decisions, and you can’t force them to change.
- Do not work harder than the person you’re trying to help. The best approach is to not do things for the addict, but instead to be an example of balance and self-care.
- Being a caretaker is not good for you or the addict. Understand that there is only so much you can do to change another person.
- Ask for help. Talk to a professional. Go to a support group such as Al-Anon. (More support groups are listed below.)
- Do not argue or try to discuss things with the addict when they are under the influence. It won’t get you anywhere.
- If at all possible, try not to be negative when dealing with the addict. That may only increase their feelings of guilt and push them further into using.
Q: I get it, but I’m still scared for Jessica and Jamie. I keep thinking about the time that Steve took our son with him to get more pills. I’m scared he’ll do it again, and they might get hurt in his care. However, I don’t want to give up on him and leave him.
He’s still a good father, but he makes mistakes. How do I protect my children and save my marriage?
A: Your desire to protect the children and save your marriage is normal. You don’t have to give up on Steve, but you can take precautions to protect Jessica and Jamie.
First, you may want to discuss his pain pill addiction with his doctor. You can attend one of his appointments and talk about the issues you’re seeing. You mentioned that he’s also getting pills from a friend. It’s important that his doctor is aware of this.
Second, you may want to consider therapy as you deal with Steve’s addiction. You may need individual and couples therapy to help you handle the issues.
Steve’s doctor and a therapist can help you save your marriage. In addition, you can take steps to keep your children safe.
You may want to hire a reliable and mature babysitter to watch the children while you’re at work. Even if Steve is at home, a babysitter can protect your children. Addicts often take their children with them to pick up drugs because they can’t leave them home alone. A babysitter can help eliminate this challenge.
Choose the babysitter carefully. It’s important that they understand the issues in your home and Steve’s behavior.
You can’t hide Steve’s addiction from a babysitter. You may want to hire a close friend or family member who understands your household. However, it’s important to be aware that this will shift the family’s dynamic. Your family is already changing because of Steve’s addiction, so this can have another impact.
Q: I understand our family is changing because of Steve, but I still wish I could stop it. How can I convince Steve to get help? Every time I bring up this topic he gets angry, and we fight.
A: It’s important to remember that you can’t blame yourself for the addiction. In addition, you need to keep in mind that you can’t change Steve. It may be tempting to wish that you could magically restore your family to the point before his addiction. However, focusing on reality is more important.
You may want to do an intervention to help Steve. Before you arrange one, you may want to consult with professional therapists and doctors who treat addicts. Instead of pointing out Steve’s faults and negative behavior, the intervention focuses on his positive qualities.
The intervention is designed to remind Steve that people still love him and want him to get better.
You want to have a professional therapist or doctor attend the intervention, so they can talk to Steve. They may be able to convince him to enter treatment and change his life. However, you need to have realistic expectations and understand Steve may reject this idea.
Another option is to have a former addict talk to Steve and encourage him to get help.
Talking to a person who has been through the same issues may help Steve realize he can change. You can find former addicts willing to talk to Steve at various clinics and rehabilitation centers.
You can also help Steve sign up for local meetings designed to help addicts in various stages of the disease. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to attend the meetings with him or have a friend go with him.
If these steps do not work at first, then consider waiting a bit and trying them again.
Sometimes people need more space to process the ideas. Steve may change his mind later about treatment options.
Do you need help dealing with an addict in the family? Here is a list of resources to get you started on your path to family recovery.
- Al-Anon.org (al-anon.org) For family members of alcoholics.
- Nar-anon (nar-anon.org) For family members of addicts.
- Gam-anon (gam-anon.org) For family members of gamblers.
- Coda.org (coda.org) For co-dependent individuals.
- Adultchildren.org (adultchildren.org) For adult children of alcoholics and addicts.
Now it’s your turn – I want to know your thoughts.
Are you dealing with an addict in the family, or have you in the past? What would you say your biggest struggles are or were? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.