Help is out there for family members of drug addicts. It is important to understand that, just as your loved one’s addiction didn’t happen overnight, neither will their recovery. Working through this problem is a process. There will be some things you need to come to grips with and do on your own, and some things for which you’ll need to patiently wait.
The good news is that addiction treatment works, and that when your loved one is ready, it’s their best shot at sustained success.
In the meantime, we need to get you prepared to help your loved one on their journey to sobriety. It’s not only about becoming familiar with the resources available to you and your loved one, but also gaining proper perspective, establishing boundaries, and caring for yourself throughout the process. After all, you will be a source of strength for your family member who is struggling with drug addiction… so we don’t want you to get dragged down a rabbit hole that wears you out and doesn’t help anyone.
1. Know that you are not alone.
Looking for help as a family member of a drug addict is a far-too-common experience today.
According to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 20.3 million people who are age 12 and over in the United States are struggling with a substance addiction. This equates to one in seven of all people 12+ in the US. When you consider that the average household size is 2.6, the rate could be as high as one in every three families facing drug addiction among one of their own.
If you add in extended family who do not live in the household, that rate increases to one in two families – or even more. Considering that many of us have a social network that includes friends, acquaintances and employers, it’s easy to see why everyone either knows someone affected by addiction, or knows someone who knows someone affected by it.
Even with these numbers, though, you can still feel very isolated when coping with drug addiction in a family member. Addicts also feel this sense of being alone in their fight. Why?
Because of the sense of shame attached to addiction (and mental illness, which can underlie addiction). You should not feel ashamed, however. Let me repeat: You absolutely should not feel ashamed. Addiction is a disease, and it needs to be treated. The problem is that the drug addicted family members needs to be willing to be treated… but we’ll get to that in a minute.
2. Understand that the addiction is not your fault.
It’s very common for friends and family members of drug addicts to wonder what they could have done or said differently to help prevent the addiction. This is simple: it’s not your fault. You didn’t cause it to happen, just like you can’t stop it now that it is happening. Recovered addicts will readily admit that they didn’t become addicted because of what someone else said or did.
Again, addiction is a disease.
A tendency toward drug addiction may run in families, but it’s a disease nonetheless. You wouldn’t blame yourself for your child inheriting diabetes or allergies or heart disease. Genetics doesn’t explain every case of addiction, either. Even if you tried, you couldn’t control every aspect of your child’s or loved one’s life. You don’t have that kind of power!
The real point, though, is that it doesn’t matter.
At this time, your family member is addicted to drugs. All of the factors that played into the addiction are simply irrelevant.
Now, when your family member gets into a qualified addiction treatment program, all that led to the development of the addiction will be brought to light and treated appropriately. However, you need to stay focused on the present moment. Active addiction has its own set of problems and circumstances.
3. Realize that you cannot control the addiction.
Just as you couldn’t have controlled your loved one’s life to stop the addiction from happening, you can’t control the addiction itself either. Here’s the kicker: Not even the addicts themselves can control it.
Drugs act on the brain in such a way that the addict is driven to use again and again. Not only that, they need more and more of the drug as time goes and they develop a tolerance to it. With this ever-growing need for more of their drug of choice, they turn to things they would have never considered doing in the past in order to feed the monster of addiction. They can lie, cheat and steal – and worse.
Although addicts cannot control the addiction, they must take a hand in determining their own destiny.
Yes, they are not in an ideal situation. Yes, they are jeopardizing their future, and yes, they are taking a risk on overdosing by continuing on their current path. They may not be employed. They may have run through any cash given to them, may have been stealing or even prostituting themselves to get enough to buy the next fix. You see, that’s all that matters in active addiction – their drug of choice.
Just remember, though, that the person is still in there, underneath of the addiction and their never-ending quest for the next high. That person still remembers life before addiction, as well as all that you taught them growing up. They don’t want to be doing what they are doing, they know it’s not the life they want or need. Although they may desire to be clean, addiction is a compulsion like no other, driving them to use, again and again.
Nonetheless, it’s still their path to take.
Again, unconsciously, the addict is aware that this is not the life they truly want. As a family member of a drug addict, you can pray and hope that this realization – and the desire to change – becomes so strong that it takes root and overwhelms the desire to continue using. You pray and hope that this realization lasts long enough for the addict to get into a good drug addiction treatment center.
4. Be prepared to help your drug addicted family member when he or she is ready.
The time to research options is always now. Your drug addicted family member may not be ready for the help that you offer, but you want to be ready when they are.
Just remember that only the addict can decide when that time is. Unfortunately, it’s usually (but not always, thankfully) due to a life-altering event or circumstance arising out of their addiction. It doesn’t mean that those addicted to drugs have to hit “rock bottom,” which has a different definition for every individual. Sometimes it’s simply waking up after a binge and just being “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Nevertheless, most addicts in recovery can pinpoint that defining moment where they decided to get out of the mess they were in and make recovery a priority.
Meanwhile, you can contact addiction treatment centers in your area (and even outside your area, if the addict’s social network will be an impediment to sobriety) to inquire about treatment. You will get a sense for the treatment path and what it involves, as well as how to finance it. If the addict is under 26 and still on a parent’s health insurance policy, that can be one way to go. Or, you can consider private pay options such as paying a set amount each month, or looking at one lump sum payment if a partial scholarship is involved. Sometimes, you can find a facility that will handle the first initial phase of treatment – detoxing from the addict’s drug of choice – for little to no cost through a non-profit facility, and then seek further treatment at treatment center that will help your addict learn about their addiction, develop coping and life skills.
The first step is to research treatment options online, then pick up the phone to talk with your top choices. At good addiction treatment centers, you’ll find the admissions staff to be quite knowledgeable about all of the resources available to you. Many times, they’ve been through the treatment process themselves and can be invaluable in helping you to know you aren’t alone and what your options are. They can verify your insurance and any benefits available to you. They can help you work out a payment plan if necessary. Most of all, they can help you navigate from where you are now to getting your loved one into treatment at the right time. Make good use of your conversations with them, and don’t feel as though you are wasting their time. This is what they do, day in and day out.
You’ll want to know whether the addiction treatment center is:
- Licensed – You’ll want to ensure that the treatment facility is licensed by the appropriate licensing body for its state.
- Accredited by the Joint Commission – The Joint Commission is the “gold standard” of healthcare.
- Provides Evidence-Based Treatment – The facility should be providing treatment proven to be effective via scientific research.
- Provides Treatment Tailored to the Individual – No two people experience addiction the same way, and everyone has specific needs that must be addressed in treatment. For example, there could be a co-occurring disorder such as anxiety or depression. Also, treatment must be continually evaluated and adjusted to ensure it is meeting the individual’s needs.
- Provides Sufficient Duration of Treatment – The program should be as long as it needs to be and have the ability to be extended if necessary.
A word about interventions: You can always orchestrate one and hope that it will help. There are statistics that show that using a professional interventionalist increases the chance that your loved one will enter treatment afterward. The problem is that they may just go along to make you happy, but that doesn’t mean that they will complete treatment or not relapse right after treatment. When it comes to addiction treatment that sticks, there is no substitute for internal motivation. You may get lucky and the motivation needed springs up in the individual based on the intervention or treatment itself. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it, but you need to understand what has to happen before true recovery can take root. The problem is this: 40 to 60 percent of drug addicts in recovery relapse after substance abuse treatment (National Institute on Drug Abuse).
The addict has to make the decision and put forth the effort, because it’s not just about physically detoxing from the substance. It’s about discovering what led to the addiction in the first place and addressing it. It’s about establishing a new life that puts being clean at the top of the list, with new friends, a new living situation in some cases, a new job perhaps, new meetings to attend advisedly – all that goes along with it. A qualified addiction treatment center can help in all of these areas. Here are some resources that can help you get started:
- 211 – Dialing 211 will get you access to essential community services. The referral specialist answering the phone can help you navigate through the help that is available and connect you to the appropriate agency. It covers all 50 states and 90% of the U.S. population. They may even be able to connect you with a place that will detox your loved one at no charge. Just remember that you will need to seek further treatment after the detox process. Find out what the drug addiction treatment path looks like.
- SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services) Website (www.samhsa.gov) This government-sponsored site is a great place to educate yourself on addiction as well as services and treatment available to you. It also has an extensive list of treatment centers from the entire U.S.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (drugabuse.gov) – The Patients & Families section of this website, also sponsored by the federal government, offers some valuable information on drug addiction and its treatment.
5. In the meantime, it’s all about self-care.
The basic premise of self-care is that we can’t take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves. It’s not selfish to say “no” to an invitation if you need downtime. We are not machines; we need to be rejuvenated. We were not meant to be going as fast as possible for 100% of the time. It’s just not physically possible and will lead to burnout. So, if you worry about your drug addicted family member (and who doesn’t?), seek help for yourself. Here are some resources that have helped others who’ve been in your shoes:
- Therapist – If at all possible, you should find a psychologist or psychiatrist to talk with. In the context of this trusting relationship, and you can feel free to let out the full range of thoughts and emotions you are experiencing without fear that they will be shared with others or that you will be judged.
- Nar-Anon (nar-anon.org) – This organization is for family members and loved ones of drug addicts and even recovered drug addicts. Here, you will be surrounded by others who know exactly what you are going through. There are weekly meetings held all over the country; find one that works for you. You can always go to observe the first few times to see if you will feel comfortable and if it will be helpful for you. Make sure to give it a really good chance, maybe five or six meetings or so before you make a final decision.
- Al-Anon (al-anon.org) – This organization is for family and friends of alcoholics. Since the meetings are centered around the common problems that loved ones face when dealing with an alcoholic, you may find it useful in your case as well. Many times drug addiction is accompanied by alcohol use, and so this would also apply if your loved one is also drinking. As Al-Anon states on their website, a 2015 membership survey “reported that 40% of Al-Anon members first came to Al-Anon because of a relative or friend’s drug problem. They survey also showed that 85% of these members eventually realized that someone drinking also negatively affected their lives.” Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance and is frequently used along with illicit substances.
Throughout this process, don’t forget to eat right, exercise, and try to get adequate sleep. You are the pillar of strength that the addict will be leaning on, especially when they are ready to seek treatment.
This doesn’t mean that you are available night and day, opening your home and emptying your wallet to the addict.
You will need to set boundaries and stick with them. You may set a boundary that you will not give the addict any cash, for example. Or that they can come to you for a medical emergency, which you will pay directly to the doctor or hospital, and nothing else. It’s called tough love, and it accomplishes two things. It helps you take care of yourself, which is absolutely necessary, and it helps the addict feel the consequences of his or her actions, potentially speeding up the process by which he or she becomes ready for treatment.
6. Participate in your loved one’s recovery – and keep it up.
Addiction affects everyone it touches. You will need to heal from the devastating effects of addiction just as your loved one does. You’ll want the family to be involved in supporting your family member through recovery. You can stay in contact with the treatment center, and if there is a family weekend, attend it. However, you also need to continue working on your recovery from the effects of addiction with a therapist, Nar-Anon or Al-Anon. Recovery will always be a part of your loved one’s life, and yours as well. It’s a small price to pay for having your family member back, and it will make your family relationships even better than before.