7 Mistakes Loved Ones Make with an Addict

Sad mother talking to her daughter in living room practicing tough love

If your loved one is addicted to drugs or alcohol, you’re not alone. With an estimate 18.5 million Americans qualifying as having a substance use disorder, 1 in 5 Americans knows someone close with an SUD. Many of the people we work with, live with, and spend time with have a drug or alcohol problem. It’s a fact of life. While there’s a considerable amount of stigma involved with substance use disorders, an SUD is a mental health disorder and is qualified as a temporary disability under the Affordable Care Act. Your loved one is suffering from a disorder, which is treatable, and which they can recover from.

While your primary goal should always be to a) protect yourself and your mental health and b) to get your loved one into recovery, many people make mistakes along that road. The following include 7 of the most common mistakes loved ones make with an addict.

1. Not Setting Boundaries

Boundaries are crucial to protecting you and your loved one. But, addicts are very bad at sticking to boundaries. More importantly, if you’re not used to setting and sticking to boundaries, you’re likely bad at setting and keeping them. That can be detrimental to your relationship and to your long-term mental health.

Good boundaries might look like:

  • You do not use drugs or get blackout drunk when I am around
  • I will not wait up for you
  • I will not lie for you
  • I will not lend you money
  • I will not take on your chores
  • I will not cover for you when you are too hungover to work
  • I will not buy you drugs or alcohol
  • I will not tolerate being yelled at or verbally abused – I will simply leave
  • I will not tolerate violence in the house, I will simply leave
  • I will take X days off to stay (in a hotel, at my parents, with friends) to have a break

These types of boundaries are simple, but difficult to stick to. The very important thing with setting boundaries is that if you don’t stick to them, all other boundaries will be promptly ignored. Consider what’s important for your mental health, for your peace of mind, and for your ability to make ends meet. Discuss those needs with your loved one. If they aren’t reciprocative to the fact that your mental health is also important, you should likely consider simply moving out.

Once you set boundaries, stick to them. There should be consequences for boundaries being broken. For example, you stay somewhere else for a week, or you move out. If there are no consequences, you don’t, in practice, have boundaries.

2. Sharing Judgement

Most of us are brought up with a considerable amount of ingrained social stigma towards substance abuse. That’s difficult to avoid. It’s also difficult to avoid feeling disgust or shock at someone making bad decisions. The important thing is, people with substance use disorders often have poor or no control over their actions. They react impulsively. If they could stop, they would.

If you are judging your loved one’s behaviors and actions, keep it to yourself. That includes:

  • What will the neighbors think?
  • You look/act like a slob
  • You did this to yourself
  • Substance use disorders are a personal failing
  • This is your fault

If you have most of those thoughts, you probably want to invest a considerable amount of time into research. Addiction is a disorder. Entertaining judgement gets in the way of getting treatment. And, if you are going to get your loved one into treatment, they need to know that it’s about them, their health, and you caring about them. Not, what will the neighbors think or “you’re embarrassing me”.

3. Practicing “Tough Love”

Serious unhappy sad man sitting at the table and pouring vodka into his glass while having alcohol addiction

“Tough Love” is the idea that you can cut someone out in response to them using or drinking and it will help them to recover. This is based on the flawed idea that an addict has to hit “rock bottom” in order to recover. The thing is, tough love usually doesn’t work. The number one motivator to change is social support, especially from loved ones. If your loved one believes you care about them, believes they are partially going into recovery for you, and know that you love them no matter what, they’re significantly more likely to go into treatment. If you practice tough love and kick them out, they’re just potentially homeless and at significantly higher risk of overdose, injury, and death.

4. Enabling Their Addiction

The line between supporting your loved one and enabling their addiction is a fine one and that can be difficult to walk. But, if you’re paying bills, buying groceries, cleaning, lying for your loved one, or otherwise helping them to live around their substance use disorder – you might be enabling them. Enabling happens when someone would not be able to continue their current habit without the support you’ve given.

That’s extremely difficult to avoid if you share a house with someone. Losing a house means both of you lose the house. But if you’re paying rent for a sibling or a child, you’re definitely enabling them. It’s always a good idea to step back, to assess how much you’re really doing for them, and to take a step back wherever possible.

5. Not Learning About Addiction

Addiction is complicated. It changes people. It impacts every part of their life, from diet and nutrition to brain development. Once your loved one is an addict, it changes who they are forever. If you want to remain in their life, you should take time to learn about addiction, how it impacts your loved one, and how it impacts their relationships. Organizations like Al-Anon can help. There’s also plenty of reading material – including basic free pamphlets handed out at doctors’ offices across the country. Learning about addiction will help you to respond in ways that help, to have insight into your loved one’s behavior, and to get them into treatment.

6. Investing Too Much

Substance use disorders change people. Someone in the grips of a substance use disorder will be narcissistic, manipulative, and self-centered. They struggle to feel because many drugs and even large amounts of alcohol change how the brain creates and processes the neurotransmitters that cause happiness, love, and feeling good while helping others. They will be unreliable. They will lie. If you’re constantly expecting your loved one to behave like they did before they were an addict, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

Here, it’s important to step back, to assess how much you should expect, and to expect the worst. You shouldn’t have to wait up for someone who isn’t going to be there on time. You shouldn’t assign chores or responsibilities to someone who won’t do them. You shouldn’t set expectations when those expectations are liable to be broken. Set realistic expectations rather than investing energy and emotions in someone who is just going to be disappoint. That can be painful, but it will benefit your mental health long-term.

7. Refusing to Change

If your loved one is trying to recover from a substance use disorder and you are part of their life, you have to change with them. It’s often the case that people get their loved ones into rehab and then expect things to return to normal. They won’t. Your loved one will come back with a new lifestyle, new experiences, and new restrictions to their diet and lifestyle. They’ll have to invest time in diet, nutrition, exercise, and self-improvement – all of that is necessary to recover. And, chances are, substance use will have permanently changed their personality. You aren’t getting your loved one back as they were. If you want to keep them in your life, you’ll have to adapt and change with them.

Eventually, anyone struggling with a substance use disorder needs help. They might take your recommendation to go to drug rehab. They might not. You might have success with an intervention, you might not. The point is to be there, to withdraw when your mental health is at risk, to set good boundaries, and to ensure your loved one knows that help is there when they are ready.

If you have any questions about helping your loved one get into addiction treatment, please contact us today. We are here to help and our experienced addiction advisors are standing by to answer any questions.

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