The Shared Misery of Addiction
With addiction comes blindness.
It begins with the addict’s blindness to the fact they need help. As they will be blind to the hurt and damage they cause those around them. But the family isn’t blind. They see what the addict can’t, or won’t. And because they see they will often feel it is up to them to save the addict from themselves.
But how do you know what you’re doing is really helping? How do you know you’re not just enabling?
Anything you do for the addict that relieves them of the pain of being an addict is enabling. There may be times when the line between helping and enabling is a fine one. Your love and loyalties will be tested. Prepare yourself – such is the rollercoaster ride of addiction.
Cleaning up their messes, helping them dodge responsibilities financial and otherwise, lying and making excuses for them – anything you do that makes up for what the addict is not doing themselves, all of this is considered enabling.
So, what’s the alternative – not helping them at all? To an extent: Yes. Enabling is what happens when you help remove the natural consequences of their actions. In doing so you allow them, whether directly or indirectly, to use again. To be sure, watching a loved one suffer and systematically destroy their lives is agonizing. The desire to protect them is natural: It’s in your DNA. But when you take care of the addict’s responsibilities, you are freeing them to get high again. And so it will go, on and on. They will continue to use because they know that they can. There is no incentive to get clean.
When Substance Abuse Comes to Your Family
What does substance abuse look like?
Physical signs a family needs to be aware of:
- Bloodshot or glazed eyes
- Dilated or constricted pupils
- Changes to skin like flushing, acne, rash of red bumps, dark spots, dry flaky skin, uneven skin tone and blotchiness
- Chapped, peeling lips
- Abrupt weight changes
- Bruises, infections, or other physical signs where the drug enters the body
Substance abuse also causes changes to behavior:
- Increased aggression or irritability
- Changes in attitude/personality
- Poor judgment and risky behavior
- Sudden changes in friends and social network, development of unhealthy relationships
- Changes in how they relate to peers and loved ones
- Dramatic changes in habits and/or priorities, neglect of responsibilities
- Lack of concern for appearance and hygiene, appears messy
- Financial problems
- Involvement in criminal activity
- Not showing up to work, complaints from co-workers
- Loss of interest in hobbies or other interests
For younger and teen substance abusers, changes in behavior can include:
- Being silent or uncommunicative
- Unpredictable displays of hostility, anger, or uncooperative behavior
- Swings or changes of mood, emotional instability, depression
- Acting unusually secretive or deceitful
- Clumsiness or stumbling
- Hyperactivity or unusual tiredness
- Decreases in motivation, lethargy
- Changes in normal speech – unable to speak intelligibly, slurred or rapid-fire speech
- Unusually elated or sullen, withdrawn, and depressed
Above changes in youth behavior may cause health issues such as:
- Frequent sickness
- Sore spots around the mouth
- Nausea, vomiting
- Wetting of lips or excessive thirst (AKA cotton mouth)
- Skin abrasions, bruises
- Accidents or injuries
Such issues may lead to issues with normal obligations, like:
- Missing work or school
- Failure to honor responsibilities
- Intoxication at work or school
- Complaints from co-workers or teachers
- Loss of interest in hobbies, sports, or other activities
Help Without Enabling
Establish boundaries and abide by them. And not just by you: If anyone in the family gives in, the enabling continues.
The solution is to not completely walk away from the person, but to take a step back.
This won’t be easy. The addict may respond with anger, screaming, tantrums, or even the silent treatment. When you are no longer there to protect them from the consequences, their life can quickly become unmanageable. The addict is left with a decision: They can either make a positive change or sink deeper into their addiction.
Bringing “The Bottom” Up
By not enabling your loved one’s addiction, the hope is, you can help to bring the bottom up – “rock bottom” representing the addict’s lowest point. From the horrors of the bottom, the addict will be moved to make life-changing decisions and turn their life around.
Waiting for someone to reach rock bottom can be a dangerous proposition. The “bottom” can also mean injury, sickness, overdose, jail, and even death. And hitting “bottom” is no guarantee that the addict will suddenly be inspired to save themselves. Addicts can have a high threshold for catastrophe. As long as the addict can wake up to meet another day, they may put off the pains of getting straight. Every user can have a different version of what bottom feels like.
The longer the substance abuser waits for rock bottom, the greater the potential damage and risk.
What to Do When It Happens to Your Loved One
Addiction is a chronic yet treatable condition. Although it is officially designated a disease (by the American Society of Addiction Medicine in 20111), it is not treated like other diseases. We would never expect those who suffer from asthma or diabetes to “hit bottom” before receiving treatment. One of the arguments against considering addiction a disease is that it furthers the stigma. Research backs this up: As a brain disorder, people tend to think that addiction is associated with “bad character.”2
Addiction, like depression, is a real medical disorder that impacts the brain. Thinking of it as a brain disease only makes the stigma worse. Far more useful is emphasizing the recovery and resilience the addict can achieve through treatment, support groups, and counseling.
Don’t Give Up on Your Loved One
Substance abuse can spread heartbreak through a family like a virus – there’s a reason why it’s called the “family disease.” Chemicals turn someone we thought we knew into someone we don’t. They are rendered difficult and unappealing. The will to help them can be easily lost.
Don’t do that. They still need your compassion. Consider this:
- The substance abuse of your loved one is not your fault.
You will wonder if there was more you could’ve done and that is natural. The worry you will have about their safety and health will leave you feeling helpless and scared, this is also natural. These things are all outside of your control.
- Detach, but detach with love.
Without some distance, you and your substance abusing loved one can easily fall into a pattern of codependency and enabling. You can see the risks and folly of leaving your happiness in the hands of a person who is, while on substances, out of their mind. Now, it’s on them – if they choose to become clean and sober the must cooperate and be committed. But, that doesn’t mean you there is nothing you can do.
- Set boundaries but don’t give up.
You can’t give in every time your loved one wants something from you just because you don’t want to lose them. Very often the addict will try to leverage more and more from you while making no efforts to stop their substance abuse. This is a cycle that only goes one way: Down.
Boundaries you should set:
1) Don’t give your addict money.
2) To steal money or other items from your home is unacceptable. If this happens, rather than allowing them back into your home, have future meetings with them in a neutral location.
3) Don’t allow them to bring drugs or alcohol into your home and don’t use or drink yourself, at least while they’re around.
4) Do not allow emotional or physical abuse.
- Find help for yourself – reach out to support groups.
You’re venturing into territory that many others have already explored; join a community that understands your pain and situation. With their support you can find strength you didn’t realize you had. With their help, you may find a loving solution.
To find love and healthy compassion for your addicted loved one will be a challenge and a test. But without a doubt, it is the best thing to do – for them and for you.