How families can cope when a family member lives with addiction

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Whatever form it takes, addiction can have a damaging impact on careers, finances and relationships, especially the family. It’s important to remember that recovery is a process not just for the addict, but for the whole family. In order to support your loved one and cope as a family unit, you’ll need to make adjustments to how you think about the disease of addiction, and communicate with everyone involved.

If you’re a member of a family that includes someone struggling with an addiction, we explore how you can cope with the confusing and painful feelings they (and you) may have, and how you can be as supportive as possible.

Understanding addiction

The first step to being a positive influence in an addict's life is to try and understand what they’re going through. If you haven’t suffered with addiction yourself, you might never fully understand their feelings and behaviours. However, making the effort to learn about the realities of addiction will go a long way to helping you (and them) cope with the situation.

It’s vital to remember that addiction is often a long-term disease and recovery can last a lifetime.

Throughout your experience, remember that:

  • Unfortunately, your loved one knows that using drugs and/or alcohol causes emotional and physical pain to them and to those around them. However, their addiction is so strong that it overrides that pain
  • Don’t take things personally. At times, your family member may not seem grateful for your love and support, but know that patience and persistence is the right thing for them
  • Addiction is treatable and recovery is possible - you can play a huge part in that. At times, it may seem like coping is an uphill task, but there are steps you can take that will benefit you, your family and the person who's struggling with addiction

Living with an addict: seven ways for families to cope

Accepting addiction as a disease

Realising an addiction is more than just a bad habit can take time. You may feel powerless and as though you’re unable to help your loved one who's suffering. Accepting that addiction is a disease, and something that you can’t control, can bring some relief.

Breaking the patterns

Recognising addiction as a disease can help you let go of feelings of wanting to change or control loved ones who are suffering. Try to think about your own patterns of behaviour and emotional triggers, as these might be having a negative impact on your loved one’s recovery and the family as a whole.

Your own emotions can sometimes lead to difficult situations and may result in things like verbal attacks or impatient and insensitive responses. It may also be tempting to try and establish a sense of normality by ignoring the situation. However, it's crucial that you constantly think about the effects your own behaviour could be having on an addict, in order to aid their recovery.

Engage in self-care

It’s a tough time for everyone in the family right now, which makes it doubly important that you put some time to one side to look after yourself. Your strength and mental wellbeing are going to be vital as recovery continues. Sometimes, the best way to maintain those things is to take some time away.

Try and make time to do something for yourself every day, whether that’s taking a walk, having a hot bath, or listening to your favourite music. Also, try and make sure that you exercise, eat healthily and get enough sleep at night. Ultimately, you can’t pour from an empty cup, so it’s important to look after yourself too.

Self-esteem and self-worth

Family members may feel they are to blame for causing the addiction, even though this isn’t the case. Enduring the effects of addiction can leave family members without a sense of self. Starting to pay attention to your own wants and needs, instead of relying on the addicted person to meet them, is an important shift.

Managing emotions

It’s normal for you to feel lots of different emotions towards the addicted person. Hopefully, they can begin to take responsibility for their own recovery, but this may not be the case. It can be difficult for you to step out of the cycle of blame and resentment, so it’s important that you learn how to manage your anger.

Try to find healthy ways to express your frustration or ‘let off steam’. For example, exercise is a great way to relieve yourself of stress and irritation. Alternatively, try confiding in a trusted friend – don’t keep your feelings bottled up waiting to come out.

Develop a response plan

If certain events do occur, such as a heated argument or relapse, it’s important to have a plan in place to keep the situation under control. Addiction can drive people to act in ways that aren’t who they truly are. If you find a situation is escalating, or you think a different voice is needed to communicate with your loved one, lean on some added support. Make preparations by speaking to friends, family or medical professionals – having that support in place can make coping with the addiction a bit easier.

Get addiction help

Meeting with other families who have experienced addiction can be extremely helpful. Not only will they be able to understand and relate to what you and your family are going through, they may also have other coping strategies that have been successful for them. Social media and online forums can be a good place to start your search for local groups who can offer support.

You could also consider booking your family in for a therapy session. This will encourage everyone to have an open and honest dialogue about the difficulties of managing addiction in the family. In turn, it should help you to process not only the thoughts of the addicted member of your family, but the thoughts running through your own mind too.

Blog - Pamela Roberts

Blog reviewed by Pamela Roberts (BSc (Hons), Fd Systemic/Family, Dip.Addictions Therapy, Dip.Sex Addiction, PG Dip.Group Facilitation, PG Dip.Trauma Therapy), Addictions Programme Manager at Priory Hospital Woking

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