In a comment on my review of the Big Book of A.A., Alex asked if I had one piece of advice for families of addicts, what would it be?
I answered that question, and you’re welcome to read my response in the comments, there. But I could only pick one, and the reality is that there are lots of things I’d like to pass along to the family members of someone struggling with addiction. I thought it would make for a good article topic, so thank you, Alex, for that.
This still won’t be comprehensive. I’m not a therapist, and I’m not trained in family therapy. But as an addict myself who has done his share of damage to his own family and subsequently has helped other addicts and their families, there are some things that come to mind.
Don’t Enable, but Don’t Shame
This is a very hard line to walk, I’ll grant you, but it seems like many families end up on one side or the other.
On the one hand, you need to know that shame does not discourage addictive behaviors – it encourages them. Most addicts already struggle with shame for various reasons and having a habit they can’t control just piles it on. They may not seem like it outwardly, but they are already deeply ashamed of their behavior and their inability to do what others do all the time – just choose not to do it.
When families (or friends or religious groups) take an approach to addicts that involves telling them how bad their behavior is, or what a disappointment they are, or how terribly they’re behaving, or that they’re being a hypocrite, or whatever – all of these approaches will simply add shame logs to the bonfire. The more shame an addict feels, the more they will act out of their addiction and the more they will protect themselves, making it harder to get healing and help.
So, telling a gambling addict how wasteful they’re being with their money or a pornography addict that Christians shouldn’t do those things or whatever actually further entrenches addiction. If it weren’t an addiction, a little of that sort of talk might prod someone in the other direction (rightly or wrongly), but when it is an addiction, it simply drives the underlying issues in deeper.
On the other hand, saying nothing is usually not an option. Isolation and hiding the behaviors are primary tools for an addict to keep the addiction going. It is highly unlikely that an addict will simply fix themselves left unaddressed. What’s more, most (if not all) addictions also produce behaviors that harm others, so family members do not really have the option of just keeping quiet or, worse yet, assisting the addict in acting out. Not only does this allow the addict to continue to harm themselves, it continues to harm other family members as well.
I can’t tell you how many sons and daughters of addicts I’ve talked to that not only resent the addicted parent; they also resent the other parent for not stepping in and protecting them.
These patterns crop up differently from family to family. A very religious family may go straight to shaming the addict for falling short of their moral standards. Other families may just try to be quiet about it, hoping the addict will themselves choose to stop, until things hit a boiling point, at which point they usually drive deeply into shaming territory.
So, how do you avoid these pitfalls? How do you address the addiction of a loved one without adding to the shame that will only make their condition worse?
Become an Ally
If someone is convinced that you are on their side, it puts a totally different spin on difficult conversations.
You may be thinking, “Well, of course my son/daughter/husband/wife/aunt/uncle knows I’m on their side! They know I love them and only want the best for them.”
This is not something you can afford to take for granted. Many addicts will believe that you love them and have good intentions but are ultimately someone to fear and withdraw from. While they may see you as overtly benevolent, they may still think of you as someone who will judge them or someone who is more concerned about the reputation of your family or enforcing your moral standards than you are about their welfare and recovery.
It may be something as simple as, when your son gets in trouble and goes to you for help, you spend the first 20 minutes explaining why what they did was wrong and how they could have avoided the whole situation. That may seem like common sense to you, but to someone in trouble who needs your help, it sounds like you’re more interested in telling them how they come up short than you are about helping them. They are not likely to tell you about these sorts of things, again.
What if you had first focused on their difficult situation, understanding what they were feeling inside and the predicament they were in, then invested in helping them through that? And then, after the crisis had passed, putting your arm around them and going, “Well, that was awful, but I’m glad we got through it. Now, how do you think we can keep this from happening again?”
You see, the odds are good they already know they screwed up and already feel terrible about it. By first putting the focus on their troubles and their welfare, you demonstrate that those are the things that are most important to you.
For addicts, incidents like this play out every single day. I doubt there are very many addicts who actually want to be addicts. There may be zero of such people. Nearly every single addict does not want to do the things they do. They do not want a compulsive behavior. They would like to be able to choose, but they can’t. They already know what they’re doing is self-destructive and, in many cases, unethical. They already feel like hypocrites. They already feel alone, misunderstood, and like nobody is as bad as they are.
Now, you may not have said any of those things to them, but what have your words and actions communicated? Probably, you didn’t mean to communicate those things, but have you? They may love you and believe you love them, but they also see you as a very unsafe place, and if that’s the case, nearly any difficult conversation will be taken as an attack.
If someone is convinced that what you predominantly care about is them and their welfare and that you are on their side, this changes the dynamic significantly. This is why addicts often have an easier time being honest with their therapist or with their support group than their own spouse. They don’t believe their therapist or group members love them more or have a deeper relationship – they believe those people are mainly oriented around their welfare. Therapists and support groups care about you getting better, and they are on your side.
I can’t tell you exactly what this needs to look like in your family. I don’t know what state your relationships are in or what your history together has taught your addicted family member. I will say that you should not take “ally” status for granted. If your addicted member isn’t already regularly coming to you and having open, honest conversations about their behavior and what they’re going through, the odds are good that they may love you, but they don’t consider you to be on their side in this.
As a side note, many addicts who are religious struggle with seeing God the same way. They may love God, but they don’t consider God to be an ally or on their side. This may be due to religious teaching or thinking of God the same way they think of parents or what have you, but just be aware this is often the case. I remember what a massive acceleration it was to my recovery the night I came to see God as an ally who did not judge me, but wanted to work with me to get better. I remember that night as if it were yesterday, because it was such a huge shift for me.
You Need Allies, Too
If you are a family member of an addict, you probably feel like you have no idea what to do, next. Your whole family probably feels that way. You know you should do something, but you have no idea what. Maybe you’ve even tried some things that didn’t go the way you hoped.
Listen, every family of an addict feels that way, too.
There’s no manual for this stuff. Lots of people gave me advice before and after I got married, but not a single person said, “Oh, by the way, if your spouse develops a cocaine habit, here’s what you need to do….”
Every family, left to their own devices, feels like they are alone in this, that nobody can relate, and they just don’t know what to do next. In this way, you are experiencing a form of what your addicted family member feels. They actualy feel the same way about dealing with their addiction that you do most of the time. This, by the way, can be a common plank that leads to being an ally. There are few things more honest and trust-building than saying, “I don’t know what to do, here, either. But we can figure it out together.”
Just like an addict must have other people in their lives who can speak into their addiction, your family does, too.
One piece of good news is that social awareness of addiction and medical research into the field is at a point where there are plenty of books you can read, both about the addiction and being a family member of an addict. Are you the spouse of a sex addict? There are books specifically about that. Are you the mother of an alcoholic? There are books specifically about that. And websites. And articles.
But you need more than raw information. You need other people, other families, who can come alongside you with advice and encouragement, and you can do the same for them. I realize this may feel uncomfortable – letting another family in to what is likely a secret shame. Addicts feel this way when they reach out, too. But there’s no substitute for the effectiveness of bringing other people into this.
You may not realize this, but there are actually support groups for family members of addicts. Possibly the best known is Al-Anon, a support group for friends and family members of alcoholics. There are family support groups for all kinds of addictions and some for addict families in general that are not addiction specific. Some of these groups are nationwide, some are local, some may simply be a group that a therapist in town put together. The Internet can help you track these groups down, or you can also call a recovery center or therapist and ask; you don’t even have to tell them who you are.
I always encourage people to read, but the problem with books is they can lull you into a false sense of security. Armed with that information, you may feel like you can now tackle this without any help. That is a costly mistake. A book does not know your specific situation. A book cannot customize its advice. A book cannot listen to your frustration, pray for you, or give you a hug. You need people who can walk this road with you, and they are out there.
You Are Not Alone
This isn’t advice, per se, but just a reminder. There is almost no tragedy or struggle that your family can experience that no one else can relate to. Other families deal with this. Maybe other families in your existing social or religious groups are dealing with this right now; you just don’t know about it.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2014 reported that 21.5 million adults in the United States of America were struggling with a substance addiction. Those people had families. Millions of families in the United States alone are going through what you’re going through, and that’s only the substance addictions, and that’s only the ones that are reported!
When you throw in unreported addictions and behavior addictions, those numbers will of necessity get much, much higher. What you are experiencing is not a weird thing. It’s not a punishment. It’s not something uniquely terrible that strikes a few families and yours just happened to be unlucky.
Huge numbers of families are sharing your experience right now. You’re not alone. If you want to, you can find these other families. Many of them have successfully gotten through this, and yours can as well.
Navigating Troubled Waters
Nothing about this is easy. I definitely understand that. Even under ideal circumstances, being the family of an addict is challenging and painful, and rarely does this happen under ideal circumstances. Relationally, there’s probably a lot of damage that’s been done in your family over this.
Just know that you don’t have to try to figure this out all by yourself. Many different kinds of families out there have gone through this and have wisdom and encouragement for you.
And remember, even though you want to help your loved one through their addiction, remember that you are experiencing pain as well. You also need to take care of yourself. This experience has created trauma for you, as well, and you also need healing if you’re to be in any position to help someone else with their healing as well.
Be gentle with yourself and know that there’s a lot of guidance out there already for you.
What about you? Do you have a close loved one who is an addict? What are your thoughts? Share with me in the Comments.