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We Are Family: Loving a Person with Substance Use Disorder

How we got here

Many of us know the feeling of anxiety that we get when we are concerned about a loved one’s substance use. That feeling of fear often leads us to try to manage, “help”, or control the person we care about and their situation. We may step in to pay a bill for them, throw their drug away, or make excuses like “they just aren’t feeling well”. We believe, as family members, that if we provide a way out, the person we love in active addiction will take it. Unfortunately, the disease of addiction doesn’t work that way. Our dear one’s brains have been hijacked by something telling them there is nothing more necessary to survival than the substance, and we end up enabling the drug or alcohol use to continue instead of making it stop.

Love, fear, and confusion are the greatest barriers to family and friends changing the way we interact with people we care about who are in active addiction. Eventually the addiction progresses and we begin to realize that what we have been doing hasn’t been working. Then we can start to look for another way. For family that means recognizing that the 1st step of AA applies to us as well, “Came to believe we were powerless over alcohol (drugs), and that our lives had become unmanageable.” After all, we have tried everything we can think of, and still the addiction continues.

Where We Go From Here

As we accept that what we have been doing hasn’t worked, we become open to trying new approaches. 12-step support groups exist for us as well! AlAnon and NarAnon are places for friends and family of alcoholics or addicts to gain the serenity, courage, and wisdom we have been desperate for. These meetings allow us a space to hear other people share their experiences and offer strength and hope. Literature (books, pamphlets, and daily readers) from those groups are very helpful. We find comfort being in a room of people who understand what we are going through and are not judgmental.

Counselors specializing in co-dependency and/or substance use disorder are a great resource as well. Often we, as friends or family, have put our own needs on the back-burner and have neglected our mental, emotional, social and/or physical health. As we begin to reengage in activities which are life-giving, we start to gain some perspective and feel better. The situations may not change, but our ability to recognize what we can and can’t do changes drastically.

We Can ALL be in Recovery

We have been suffering though our loved one’s addiction with them but we can start to heal and have hope- whether they enter their own recovery or not. In time we learn and use new tools such as: setting boundaries, reaching out for help, and stepping back from cleaning up the mess addiction leaves in its wake. These things demonstrate that we are no longer going to be responsible for another person’s illness. If our loved ones find recovery
too then we get to embark in a whole new relationship with them. Eventually we see that our time with them can have the honesty, compassion and laughter we have missed. We can each find healing. The key is accepting that we can only find it for ourselves.  Then, we allow others the time and space needed for them to find their own healing as well. 





Contributed Family Counselor by Heather Bland, MAEd, NCC, LCAS-A