Family members often feel helpless when a loved one becomes addicted to alcohol or other drugs. There are so many emotional webs to untangle—sadness, shame, fear and anger—all while trying desperately to get a loved one sober. Otherwise healthy family members may lose sight of their own lives or struggle with deep remorse, feeling somehow responsible for their loved one's addiction: "Maybe if I'd done things differently, my daughter wouldn't drink." But addiction isn't a parent's fault. It's not a sibling's fault. It's no one's fault. Can a parent control their child or guarantee they recover? No. Can a sibling strong-arm their brother or sister into treatment and recovery? No. But family members can always find peace, hope and self-worth completely independent of a loved one's addiction. And we sat down with best-selling author Beverly Conyers to learn how. If you could offer just one piece of advice to a family wrestling with a loved one's addiction, what would it be? Get educated about addiction, just as you would about any other serious illness. Addiction is so complicated, and it's chronic, and it will challenge you in ways you can't possibly anticipate. But the more we understand about addiction and how it changes the brain, the better able we are to cope with it. Could you explain how addiction is a disease? Addiction is both psychological and physiological. It often starts with a compulsion to use as way of coping with feelings or emotions we don't like. Many addicts had emotional and mental health issues before they started using. They use substances as a way to feel better. But addictive substances change the way the brain functions. Physical and chemical changes take place that impair decision-making and self-control. Any disease is a disruption of normal functioning. In this sense, addiction is a disease of the brain. You believe it's possible to overcome the tragedy of addiction, and we can still have good days, even when our addicted loved one is "on the streets" or relapsing. How is that possible? What guidance can you give to others to find that mental space? There's no getting around the fact that loving an addict involves a lot of worry. In the first year or so after I learned about my daughter's addiction, I was constantly sick with anxiety. No matter where I was or what I was doing, she was the only thing on my mind. It was like I didn't exist anymore. She totally consumed me. A friend said to me, "It's hard enough living one life without trying to live two." She wasn't being unsympathetic about my feelings. She was just saying the truth in a way that made sense to me: I couldn't live my daughter's life for her, and I couldn't force her to be sober. I could only live my life. I think that realization helped me shift my perspective so I could start letting go a little bit. Instead of constantly worrying about my daughter, I made a decision to try to make time for my own feelings and for things I enjoyed. When did you realize you had to figure out how to keep yourself going—that you couldn't just focus on your loved one? I went to a lot of Nar-Anon meetings, and I used to be amazed that so many people there could smile and laugh. Not that there weren't plenty of tears. When your loved one is actively addicted, you live with sorrow. But you don't have to let it define you. In fact, what I learned in those meetings is that by fixating on my daughter, I was doing more harm than good. You can't help anyone if you're not healthy yourself. Do you still have difficult days? What are the one or two things you do to help yourself? I have difficult days, but they're not all about my daughter. There's a lot of anxiety in the world today, partly because of the pandemic and environmental problems and a whole host of societal issues. And I think that sadness is a part of life. So when I get down, I've learned to accept that that's how I'm feeling. Being out in nature helps—digging in the garden a little bit, pulling up weeds or going for a walk. Just trying to connect with things that endure. To me, nature is the great comforter. Nature is strong. The earth is fragile, but it's also resilient. Sort of like all of us. How did you learn not to blame yourself? Time. It took a long time to understand that the mistakes I made as a parent didn't cause my daughter to become an addict. I believe that I did the best I could with what I knew at the time. I had my own issues, and looking back, there are a lot of things I regret. I know I made her unhappy. I made her angry at me. But I didn't make her become an addict. That was something within herself, something inherent in her makeup that I didn't put there and that she didn't choose. Do you ever experience shame? What have you learned about shame? Shame is so destructive. Shame is the belief that you don't deserve happiness, that you're fundamentally flawed and unlovable, and that nothing you do can ever make you worthy of love. Most addicts I've talked to have lived with shame for a long time, often before the addiction even started. And shame is what keeps the addiction going, because if you don't believe you deserve a better life, what's the point of getting clean? Then, during active addiction, addicts do a lot of things that deepen the shame. They disappoint and hurt people who care about them. They behave dishonestly and dishonorably. So they build up all this shame, and they come to believe that they're horrible people, so they might as well use. Shame also affects families. We ask ourselves, "What did I do wrong? Why do other families seem so much happier, more successful than mine? Their kid's going to college, and mine's going to jail." We feel the shame of failing as a parent. We believe that if we'd done things right, this wouldn't have happened. And shame is contagious. That is, the family feels it and the addict feels it. And when you feed off shame, it destroys hope. When we understand and accept that addiction is a disease, we start to overcome the shame. We begin to see ourselves and our loved one in a more generous light. When it comes to a loved one's substance abuse, do you believe in the philosophy of letting them "hit rock bottom"? I don't think we have a choice. I mean, you can try to get someone into rehab, you can encourage them to choose sobriety, you can get them involuntarily committed for a while. Sometimes it's worth doing that to try to save a life. But ultimately it's up to the individual. Everyone's bottom is different, and there's no way for us to know what their bottom is. What has been the hardest about your journey up to this point? The early years of dealing with my daughter's addiction were the worst. Every day was filled with fear, panic, grief and constant anxiety. Not knowing where she was for days at time. Driving around rough neighborhoods trying to find even a glimpse of her. Not knowing if she was dead or alive. And even when I knew where she was, trying to figure out if she was using drugs, trying to control her behavior and having absolutely no control whatsoever. Just living in constant fear that she was going to die. Those were terrible times. How have you set boundaries with your daughter? Boundaries have been hard for me. Like most mothers, my instinct is to try to rescue my daughter. Whenever she's in trouble, I want to save her. That means that I'll give up my own time, change my own plans and rearrange my whole life in an effort to help. And because she has a lot of emotional problems, I'll overlook behavior that I wouldn't accept from anyone else. That's been my pattern, and it's something I've had to work hard to change. Now when I make plans, I let her know in advance that I won't be changing those plans. If she wants me to do something that I feel she's perfectly able to do herself, I tell her that. And if she blows up at me, I don't respond immediately. I don't engage in arguments. I wait until we're both calmer. Of course, I don't always follow through. My boundaries still get squishy sometimes. But the key for me is communication and trying to be consistent, even if I don't always succeed. What is the most important thing you have learned going through your own recovery journey? I think forgiveness is critical, including self-forgiveness. If we can't forgive ourselves, we can't move on from the pain of our past. How does recovery change things? Is it different than abstinence? Recovery is about more than abstaining from alcohol or drugs, or not obsessing about your addicted loved one. People in recovery are engaged in a process of self-discovery. Instead of hiding from their emotions, they take the time to think about what's important to them and to learn to value themselves as a person. Recovery is a spiritual journey in that it involves freeing ourselves from the petty concerns of daily life and trying to connect with something that's bigger than ourselves. It involves being humble enough to ask for help and strong enough to face life as it is, the good as well as the bad. Recovery isn't just about getting clean from alcohol or other drugs. It's about figuring out how to live a life that is personally satisfying and meaningful. Is addiction a blessing in some strange way? I would never describe addiction as a blessing. It's devastating for the addict and for everyone who loves them. Families go through countless days and nights of worry, and they watch their loved one change into someone they don't even know. They fear their loved one is going to die. It's terrible for everyone involved. It's true that suffering can help us become better people—maybe wiser, less judgmental or more tolerant—but addiction itself is never a blessing. Where should I go to get educated about addiction? There are a lot of fact-based websites out there. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is a good place to start. The Alcoholics Anonymous website is also helpful. And Twelve Step meetings are a great place to gain an understanding of the disease. Nar-Anon was a lifesaver for me. It offered emotional support and gave me some valuable insight into what addiction really is. How do I help my loved one recover if I can't point out all the ways their behavior is destructive? How do I stop blaming them for their addiction? If preaching and nagging and blaming worked, there wouldn't be any active addicts in the world today. They'd all be cured. But those strategies never work. They just make the addict want to get high. The best thing we can do for our loved one is to model healthy behaviors—to respect ourselves, set boundaries, and behave honestly and honorably. Are we ever fully recovered? There's a spectrum of recovery—it's a journey. We can become wiser, more serene and happier than we were in the past. But then there are times when we might relapse, or we might stumble and fall back into a darker place emotionally, and we might wonder if we've made any progress at all. It's all part of the process. Recovery gives us a better perspective so we can become kinder and more self-compassionate. We learn how to pick ourselves up and keep moving forward. Beverly Conyers, the mother of three grown children, began writing about addiction when she discovered that her youngest daughter was addicted to heroin. She knows first-hand the anxiety and heartache that families endure, and she has gained deep insight into the process of recovery from addicts who share their experiences in her books. Above all, she knows that there is no such thing as a hopeless case. Everything can change even when we least expect it, and the miracle of recovery happens every day.