Tips for Family Members and Friends of People Struggling with Addiction
If you are a friend or family member of someone struggling with addiction, you may find yourself constantly walking on eggshells. You might monitor your conversation to avoid saying the wrong thing, carefully observe the addict’s mood, or pander to their needs. And yet, aren’t they the one causing the harm? Why are you apologizing and hoping for their approval? What sort of crazy vortex have you fallen into, and how can you climb out?Addiction of all kinds, to food, alcohol, and other substances, is big and messy. It takes over the lives of not only the addicts themselves, but also their nearest and dearest. So why do friends and family members of addicts find themselves tiptoeing around, and what can be done to fix it?
You are walking on eggshells if …
You believe you have control:
Is the addict’s behavior somehow your fault? If you came home from work earlier, or spiced up your relationship, or were a better father, would things have gotten this bad? The urge to blame yourself for a loved one’s addiction may have you trying to perfect your behavior. But here’s the thing: you have no control over anyone’s behavior. Addictive behavior is not affected by a delicious meal being on the table at dinnertime, as much as we all wish the fix was that easy.
You fear being cut out of their lives:
Ah, love. It’s a big, beautiful emotion, but curse it to the moon and back. When living with a wildly moody, unwell person that you love, the fear of losing them may keep you from calling them out on their outrageous behavior. If you are living in a canoe on a choppy ocean, you learn not to rock the boat. Love can keep us from setting healthy boundaries, which often causes an unpleasant backlash. Remind yourself to love yourself, and take care of your own needs first. While you are busy caring for your family member, who has been caring for you?
The abnormal has become normal for you:
Sometimes, you’ve been living in the dysfunctional world of addiction for so long that upside down is rightside up and walking on eggshells feels like the only way to live. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation calls this behavior “adapting” to addictive behavior, and making it easy (and comfortable) for the addicted person to continue their behavior. Without an alternative solution, the easiest solution is for the family to perpetuate the unhealthy behavior forward, rather than act as a catalyst for change.
Instead of walking on eggshells, try …
Walking on your own side of the street:
Addiction is all about powerlessness. In 12-step recovery, addicts begin a journey of recovery when they take a first step of powerlessness over their substance or behavior of choice. And here’s the thing—we’re all powerless over addiction, whether or not we’re the addicts. Coming to grips with what you have control over in life, and focusing on that (rather than the addict’s behavior) provides incredible relief. Try saying a simple mantra like the Serenity Prayer to remember to stay on your own side of the street: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Not walking alone:
Living with addiction is hard, and you don’t have to go through it alone. You may not be the one with the drug problem or the gambling addiction, but that doesn’t mean you can’t seek support. Groups like Al-Anon can act as a jumping off point to help you find a recovery group specifically tailored to your own needs. And trust me, you can find one that specifically meets your needs. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, talk to friends, other family members, a counselor, or a spiritual advisor about what is going on. Air out that dirty laundry, and you’ll instantly feel refreshed.
When dealing with an addict, boundaries are big. What are you willing to do, and where do you draw the line? Let the addicted person in your life know your limits, and then stick to them. Setting boundaries isn’t about hurting someone else, it’s about taking care of yourself. Setting firm boundaries, while also maintaining compassion, is sometimes referred to as detaching with love. Detaching with love allows the addict to come to their own realizations while protecting your needs as an individual.
Living with someone practicing addictive behaviors—from an alcoholic who opens the fridge door as soon as they arrive home, to a gambler who disappears for weekends of loss and disappointment—can feel like living with a wild animal. A loved one in the grips of addiction can be unpredictable, easily spooked, and difficult to understand. Despite the unpredictability of the addict’s behavior, you can find your own space to live happy, healthy, joyous, and free. Whether or not their behavior changes, you can change yours today.