They say that addiction is a family disease because it doesn’t just affect the addict, it affects everyone close to him. While friends and family might not suffer the direct effects of the disease, they suffer from the effects of the addict’s behavior. The loved ones of addicts often experience anxiety, fear, guilt, anger and feelings of abandonment including:
· Fear and anxiety about the addict’s well-being;
· Fear and anxiety about their own safety and well-being;
· Guilt from feeling responsible for the addict’s condition;
· Anger at the addict, or at themselves; and
· Feeling abandoned when the addict chooses the addiction over them.
The loved ones of addicts can often lack the tools to cope with the addict’s condition, which can ultimately tear relationships apart. If you are dealing with a friend’s or loved one’s addiction issues, there are things you can do to cope.
Coping with a Loved One’s Addiction
The first thing you should understand is that getting the addict into treatment is just a small part of the equation. There are several adult and young adult programs that can help the addict recover, but they won’t repair the damage done to you or your family members. In addition to getting the addict into treatment, you also need to focus on helping yourself.
Connect with others. Join a support group of friends and families of addicts, like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon. If a twelve step program does not appeal to you, look into programs sponsored by addiction recovery centers or groups that fit your religious or spiritual views, such as Jewish Recovery or the Buddhist Recovery Network. Meeting with other people in the same boat can help you process your feelings and ease the sense of isolation that many loved ones of addicts feel.
You can also heal by reconnecting with other friends and family members directly affected by the addict. Often, these relationships become strained along with the relationship with the addict.
Educate yourself on addiction and family issues. Having first-hand experience with an addict, you might feel that you know all there is about addiction and its effect on the family. However, it is also possible that you are so close to the issue that you can’t see the big picture. Reading references about addiction and family dynamics can give you a broader view, and help you better understand what’s happening in your own life.
Examine your own behavior. Although the addict’s behavior is a major source of conflict, your behavior and reactions to the addict also play a part. This isn’t about assigning blame, but rather about looking at patterns of behavior that contribute to the problem. One example might be denying that there is a problem, or minimizing the severity of the issue as a means of coping with what is happening.
Be prepared for distance. It is very difficult to beat an addiction. It’s not just the physical addiction that’s the issue, but an entire set of behavioral and mental patterns, and relationships that contribute to the addiction. This could mean that the addict will need to distance himself from you as part of his recovery. This is not to say that you are a bad influence, merely that you might be associated with certain behaviors and mental patterns that he associates with his addiction, and that could trigger a relapse. For example, if he associates the stress of family gatherings with using drugs, he might avoid them until he is strong enough to handle them sober.
Be prepared for a relapse. Even with a good recovery program, healing doesn’t happen overnight. For many addicts it’s a life-long process with an every-present threat of relapse. For example, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had been sober for nearly twenty years prior to his relapse. When an addict relapses it can often dredge up old feelings in their loved ones, which can start the cycle of damage all over again.
Forgive yourself and the addict. You might feel that there is something you could have done to stop the addiction or help the addict recover. Perhaps you might even feel that something that you have done started the addiction in the first place. Whether or not this is true, you need to understand that there is only so much you can do; and that the addict also bears some responsibility for his addiction and for getting sober. You can’t change the past; the most you can do is strive to do better in the future.
The same applies for your feelings toward the addict. He might have done awful things to you in the midst of his addiction, things that he is atoning for now. To move forward into healing, you might have to forgive these past actions in favor of looking toward the future.