When a Loved One is Addicted

Family members can't control a loved one's addiction

One of the truths about addiction is that no person drinks or uses drugs in a vacuum.

Relatives easily find themselves drawn into a maelstrom of anxiety over a family member's substance use, and their sincere efforts to arrest the problem may only deepen it.

Judy's story offers an example. "We'd been married for about 20 years, and he drank just about the entire time," she said, speaking of her former husband. "You start to think: Is it really my fault? Maybe I should be spending more time with him. Maybe if I kept the house cleaner or spent less time with the kids, things would change."

Judy's attempts to control her husband's drinking included hiding his liquor. Then it occurred to her that he might be using the same strategy to hide any evidence of alcoholism. "It got to the point where I'd see some liquor in the house and ask 'Is this what I'm hiding, or is this what he's hiding?'"

Underlying most of Judy's efforts were two ideas: that she was somehow at fault for her husband's drinking, and that by behaving differently she could control his problem.

While attending a Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Family Program, Judy turned these assumptions upside down. It happened when she reflected on Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is the step that calls on alcoholics to admit that life has become unmanageable, that they are powerless over the alcohol.

"Then it hit me," she recalled. "I finally realized what that was all about. I saw that I don't have to worry. I don't have a problem with alcohol. And I have no control over my husband's use of alcohol. It simply was not my fault."

Judy saw that her behavior actually enabled her husband's addiction to continue. The term "enabling" has become a popular term over the years. But at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's Family Center, staff members prefer "adapting," a more neutral, less blaming term.

Basically, adapting means that families make it comfortable for an addicted person to use. And the family's intention is not to do this at all. Most often, adapting is just a last-ditch effort. They simply don't know what else to do.

Examples of adapting are as varied as families themselves. We see it in the parents who continue to give a thousand dollars every few weeks to their 40-year-old son, even though they know the money will be used for drugs. The couple knows this is not effective behavior. But they're afraid that without their cash their son will rob a drug store or start dealing drugs to support his addiction.

In many families, the focus of attention narrows itself to the addicted person. Instead of family members focusing on being the best they can be, they focus on blaming the addicted person. They're so focused on this person that they can lose sight of themselves.

An alternative to adapting is detachment with love. This means responding to our own needs while being caring and considerate of another's needs. It means that we can be responsible to them, but not for them. And as a result, we no longer shield people from the consequences of their behavior.

Most family members of an addicted person tried for a long time to change that person and it didn't work. The fact is that we are involved with other people, but we don't control them. We can't prohibit them from doing some things."

How does Judy translate this into daily living? "A lot of it has to do with the Serenity Prayer, which reminds us to change the things we can and accept the rest. In other words, what do we actually have control over, and what don't we? That's something I'm still working on. But when you don't have that responsibility to control another person, it takes a lot of weight off your shoulders."

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