In the recent Amazon original movie, “Beautiful Boy”, Steve Carell showcases the torrential chaos of living life with a loved one in active addiction. Based on a true story, Steve plays the loving dad of Nicholas Sheff, a boy who has big dreams and a wildly free heart.
Throughout the story, Nic’s dad, Mark, is faced with heart-wrenching situations and impossible decisions to make:
- Should he allow a child in active addiction to stay in his home with other children?
- What addiction centers provide the best results?
- How can I love my son when his actions are hurting me and our family?
- Did I cause this?
As relapse occurs time and time again, Mark faces increased stress and anxiety as Nic’s addiction takes him deeper and deeper into danger.
Nic’s dad is torn between wanting to protect Nic and save him from his addictive lifestyle, while also trying to safeguard his family from theft, emotional abuse, and harmful behavior.
In many ways, The Sheff family tells the story of addiction that so many families can resonate with. Whether the addict is a family member or yourself, it has a deep impact on how you relate to your loved ones.
It may be difficult to know how to help someone with an addiction.
Here are some ways to start getting the help and support for someone you love.
What is Addiction?
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is defined as a “treatable, chronic medical disease”. When destructive behaviors become compulsive, it often leads to harmful and disastrous consequences.
In 2014, the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that 27 million people aged 12+ used illicit drugs in the past 30 days. That translates to about 1 in 10 Americans.
Similarly, legal substances were on the rise. For the same age range, 66.9 million people reported active tobacco use (about 1 in 20 adolescents); 139.7 million people reported drinking in the past month – including 60.9 million who reported binge drinking and 16.3 million who were heavy alcohol users.
It’s not just drugs and alcohol that can become an addiction in someone’s life.
Numbing emotions in an unhealthy way can look like:
- Excessive shopping
- Casual sex
- Tobacco & vaping use
- Prescription drug use
- Other unhealthy coping mechanisms
Despite our best efforts, addiction can happen right in our own home and to the people we love most.
Causes of Addiction
Addiction affects people from all demographics and walks of life. Both upper and lower class, young and old, men and women: addiction seizes any opportunity to strike.
While choosing a life of drugs, alcohol, unhealthy food coping, or other method of addiction may be a choice, there could be more factors at work in the process of addiction.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine suggests there are several key elements that fuel the cycle of addiction, including:
- Complex brain activity
- Living environment
- An individual’s life experiences
These factors can make a big difference in someone’s propensity to develop a substance use disorder or addiction.
Supporting Your Family Through Substance Use and Addiction
Despite the circumstances that lead to addiction, learning to fight the addictive lifestyle and find peace can be a struggle. You want to help your loved one with addiction without losing yourself.
Here are some ways to support healthy attachments and boundaries during the journey of recovery.
Have an Honest Heart-to-Heart
Addiction can be an extremely taxing habit – not only on the addict themselves but also on their loved ones. As tensions arise and you feel your relationship straining under the weight of their bad decisions, don’t be afraid to start a tough conversation. It might go something like this:
- “It breaks my heart to see you _________ (miss out on family gatherings/in harm’s way/etc.)
- “I’m sad when I feel you choose your addiction over our family”
- “I don’t feel like I can trust you with ___________ right now. Here are some ways we can start rebuilding our relationship…”
- “It really hurts me when you say you’ll be there but you aren’t. How can you make this a priority?”
Telling your loved one how their habit is affecting you may be a wake up call. Even if the pain they are causing feels intentional, the addict may not be aware of the full consequences of their actions. That’s why it’s important to speak the truth in love.
2. Be Wary of Trying to “Save” Someone
At the heart of addiction, there is a gaping hole of necessity.
As someone who loves an addict, you may find yourself compelled to fill those needs as best you can. Oftentimes, that desire to help is born out of a heart of kindness. We don’t want to see our loved ones in pain.
But when does helping become hurtful?
For example, do you find yourself:
- Making excuses for the addict
- Giving up important opportunities to meet their needs
- Feeling stressed & overwhelmed
- Afraid of what will happen if you stop helping
- Stretched thin
- Unsure of their future without your support
- Feeling like your efforts are the only thing standing between them and their addiction
- Supporting them financially more than once
- Concerned for their health and safety
The difficult thing about addiction is that sometimes the best support we can give our loved ones is honesty and space. While it may be tempting to pick up the slack as you see their addiction consuming their life, the sad truth is that recovery and sobriety are the addict’s choice alone.
While efforts to care for their basic needs – including financial assistance, taking calls in the dead of night, opening your home, and offering rides to addiction recovery – may be helpful in the moment, they may not be in the long term.
The sad truth of addiction is that no amount of love and support can stop an addict from using.
Unfortunately, the negative cycle of addiction can’t be stopped with TLC.
Sometimes, that support and desire to shield them from consequences can actually be detrimental to their recovery.
By taking away the natural consequences of their actions, we enable an addict to continue using and choosing poor behaviors. If nothing negative happens when they drink and drive because you bail them out of jail, offer them to sleep on your couch, or pay their legal fees, they are severely limited in their awareness of addiction.
While we never want to see our loved ones in pain, sometimes pain can be the driving force that shows an addict changes must be made.
If you find yourself doing too much for someone in an addictive lifestyle, ask yourself how you can love them by doing less.
3. Love within Limits
Similarly, loving an addict can take its toll on our emotions, our physical health, and our resources. While caring for friends and family is a necessity, it’s important to remember that we can only love within our limits.
When our emotional and social resources are expended, we have less energy and support to share with those around us who also need our love.
The innate nature of addiction can feel overwhelming – both to the addict and their family. Sometimes it’s easy to drown in the ocean of needs an addict possesses. There is always a bill that needs to be paid. A ride that needs to be given. A call that needs to be answered.
However, it’s important to set healthy boundaries around you and your family.
This can include protecting:
- Your time
- Your resources
- Your way of life
- Your family’s safety & wellbeing
- Your emotional, physical, and mental health
Being there for a loved one in the midst of addiction may take its toll on many of these elements, but remember to set up boundaries where needed to preserve the safety and wellbeing of yourself and your family.
This may involve saying no. And that’s ok.
Sometimes the best thing we can do for an addict is to let them take charge of their recovery journey, even if that journey isn’t a straight path to sobriety. By allowing addicts to make mistakes and be in charge of their path, we empower them to make choices and create autonomy.
It’s not easy to see loved ones struggling with addiction, but the important thing is to allow them to struggle. Let them make mistakes, and when they do, allow them the freedom to feel the consequences that will give them the courage to change their actions.
It’s hard to be there for addicts, and even harder not to take the reins. However, loving someone in recovery can sometimes be as hard as just simply saying no.
4. Be Gentle With Yourself
Addiction is a multi-faceted monster. It not only destroys the addict, but the aftermath causes damage to everyone in their vicinity.
Common side effects of living with a loved one in active addiction include:
- Financial difficulties
- Anxiety over the addict’s use
- Legal conflicts
- Child custody
- Drunk driving
- Illicit drug use
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Verbal & physical abuse
- Grief & loss due to the addiction
Supporting your family member in addiction does not come without cost.
How to love a loved one without enabling them?
Some ways you can love your loved ones in the midst of recovery without enabling them to continue living in their addiction might include:
- Allowing a loved one to take charge of their responsibilities
- Protecting yourself & your family from abuse
- Refusing to make excuses for poor behavior
- Taking care of your own needs before helping
- Limiting the ways in which you provide financial support
Living with addiction can be a draining experience, particularly when the addict is still in denial about their addictive habits. For people with big hearts, it can be tempting to slide into codependency, which happens when a loved one is dependent on another person for the majority of their needs.
A flight attendant would admonish passengers to put on their own oxygen mask before helping others. So too, assisting a loved one in recovery looks similar.
Before making sacrifices to your time, finances, and other valuable resources, be sure that your own needs and that of your family are met. Drawing healthy boundaries with loved ones is a great way to show them what you expect in your relationship.
Not only are you allowing them the freedom to choose. By creating healthy boundaries, you’re showing a loved one in addiction how you expect them to treat you.
Making boundaries and stepping back from the driver’s seat of your partner’s recovery journey may be difficult at first, but stick with it. The reward of seeing your loved one maintain their sobriety and your own wellbeing may be worth it in the long run.
The Journey of Recovery
“Nobody stays recovered unless the life they have created is more rewarding and satisfying than the one they left behind.” ~Anne Fletcher
No matter where your loved one starts on the path to sobriety, remember that a life in recovery can feel more fulfilling than life pre-addiction. By building a relationship with better habits and coping mechanisms, you may find that your relationship is strengthened despite the difficulty of addiction.
The journey of recovery can be long and very difficult at times. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, anxious about change, and angry with your loved ones.
Grieving the loss of relationships and normalcy is also a natural part of the recovery process.
But despite the pain and trauma that can ensue from a lifestyle of addiction, one can recover. And at Eddins Counseling Group, we can help make that happen.
If you or your family is experiencing negative substance use, reach out for support. Let a trained addiction specialist walk you through solutions and best practices for protecting your relationship and your sanity. Learning how to help someone with addiction is a difficult road to walk alone.