Almost all of us know someone who has a problem with addiction. For many people, it is a close family member.
Approximately 7 percent of Americans over the age of 12 are suffering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol. That number is a small fraction of all addictions when you consider other types of addictions to things such as TV, video games, internet surfing, social media, and gambling.
Addiction is any compulsive behavior that continues despite primarily negative consequences. These are acutely painful situations for people suffering from addiction and for close family members.
Let’s look at an example of a couple whose daughter has been losing more and more of her life to alcohol. In the most recent incident, Peter and Anne’s daughter, Amanda, was charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol after being pulled over and caught with a case of beer in the back seat of her car, while driving with two of her girlfriends.
Anne and Peter are at odds about the incident, as they have been since Amanda started showing signs of alcoholism. Anne feels sad for her daughter and wants to help her. She makes excuses for Amanda’s behavior and minimizes the problem. She shares glasses of wine with her daughter “for an occasional celebration.”
Peter is angry about Amanda’s behavior and frustrated that he hasn’t found a way to stop it. He yells and lectures at Amanda and threatens to kick her out of the house. He blames his wife for being too lenient with Amanda and believes that Anne is making the problem worse.
“Thank goodness she wasn’t drinking and driving.” Anne declares, “She could have lost her license and even gone to jail.” Peter breaks in, “Anne, maybe she needs to go to jail. What if she had been drinking and gotten into an accident? Would that be enough for you to finally set some limits on her!”
Anne and Peter show us two sides of an eternal conflict between parents or loved ones in a relationship with someone who is addicted. One side minimizes the problematic behavior while mitigating the damage it causes. The other side believes an effective punishment is the only way to get a person to toe the line. Both responses grow from the terrible fear that they are losing someone they love and the hopelessness that can’t do anything about it.
Finding a way out of this dilemma requires an understanding of the function of addiction. Careful observation and research show that addictive behavior serves to terminate painful emotional states. Ordinarily, this emotion regulation function takes place in close family relationships. In other words, people are designed from birth to soothe their negative emotions through the comfort, love, security, and acceptance of their family members. The addictive substance takes the place of these relationships by extinguishing the anxiety, boredom, guilt, shame, and anger of the addicted person. It works incredibly well in the short term, only to cause even more physical and emotional pain later.
The pattern becomes self-reinforcing when withdrawing from the substances brings on the next bout of negative emotions. The addictive behaviors alienate people who could be the means of support and adds new heaps of guilt and shame atop the old ones, due to broken promises and failures.
In addition, rejection by close family members is a common antecedent to a relapse of addictive behavior because it confirms to the addicted person that it is not safe or effective to trust others with your tender feelings and ask for comfort. Therefore, Peter’s angry admonishments increase Amanda’s negative emotions, cause distance in the relationship, and ruin the safety that Amanda needs to rely on him for emotional comfort.
Meanwhile, Anne is helping to feed the denial that Amanda is using to justify her behavior and keeping her from experiencing the consequences that could force her into a needed change. This behavior is often called enabling. Enabling is an action that makes it easier for another person to engage in or continue addictive behaviors. Common examples include giving someone the money or means to financially support destructive behavior, or protecting them from the full consequences of their behavior.
With this context, you can see how both Anne and Peter’s behaviors are making it easier for Amanda to continue her addictive behavior. While in a relationship with an addicted person, people frequently swing between the two stances represented by Peter and Anne. When we are outraged by the person’s behavior, we try to scold and punish it out of them. When saddened by the devastating consequences of it, we try to rescue them with love and care. It’s natural to feel both of these states, but in such a serious situation, we have to carefully study and employ what is effective, and not do things that make it worse.
What You Can Do
What can you do when a loved one is suffering from addiction? It is a difficult situation and a delicate balance. Let’s start with what not to do.
1. Yelling, scolding, criticizing, lecturing, and reminding the person about their bad qualities is always a bad idea. They already know all of the bad things you think of them, and they think even worse of themselves. This only adds further passion to the belief that they are useless failures, undeserving of care or love. Your desire to do this is based on anger, and your anger grows from your fear. You are better off expressing your fear and sadness directly. If you have to set boundaries, do it in a kind but firm way.
2. Don’t engage in enabling behavior. Don’t help the person get, pay for, or provide transportation to their addictive substances. Don’t do anything to protect them from the natural consequences of their self-destructive behavior unless those consequences are a serious safety risk. Don’t give money to someone with an active addiction.
3. Validate the person’s pain and suffering, even if they did it to themselves. Validate the pain and suffering that the person believes you caused them. This is the hardest part but it is powerful! Even if you don’t believe that you did the things the person says, they still believe it. If you really want to help someone, they have to believe that you can really see their pain. Because their emotional pain is intangible, you might not believe it, but it’s real. Help them bring it to the surface and show it to the light of day. They are terrified that if people really knew them, they would find them detestable, unlovable, and would never want to see them again.
4. Look for the side of them that wants to stop the addiction and show them that you believe that they can overcome it.
5. Look for the vulnerable and fearful side of them that just wants to be loved and accepted like everyone else, and show them that you treasure that part of them.
6. Use your time and resources to help them when they are clearly ready. If you force someone into help against their will or if they are unsure, it’s much less likely to work. They might tell you they are ready to stop when part of them isn’t ready. Don’t be afraid to ask if they are ready to completely stop their addiction. The turmoil that follows a crisis is often an opportune time to offer help and ask for changes.
Michael Courter is a therapist and counselor who believes in the power of personal growth, repairing relationships, and following your dreams. His website is CourterCounsel.com.
Do you have questions about relationships or personal growth that you would like Michael to address? Send them to mc@CourterCounsel.com