Over 19 million people in the United States are struggling with a substance abuse disorder and more than 2 million of those are addicted to opioids. Studies show that one in three Americans know someone who is battling with opioid addiction, many of whom have lost a friend or family member to an overdose.
At these rates, a lot of us have had to deal with someone who is addicted and know how difficult it can be to maintain our own mental wellness, all while watching our loved one waste away.
Growing up in the mountains of West Virginia just outside of the nation’s capital, I was the oldest of eight children. My family was conservative, attending church services every week, and all of us kids were enrolled in a private religious academy from grade school through senior year.
Never did I imagine that one of us would struggle with addiction, so when my brother got hooked on opiates to deal with grief after the sudden death of one of our siblings, it was devastating to my family. It hit him hard and fast, beginning with prescription painkillers and quickly progressing to heroin injected into any available vein.
During this time, he denied having an addiction, avoided any contact with family, and became unrecognizable, rapidly losing weight and developing open sores on his face and arms. He was arrested several times for stealing things that he could sell to pay for his habit.
It was only years later that we learned that West Virginia was one of the five leading states in the country for opioid dependencies and overdose deaths. Hundreds of young men and women died in our county alone as a result of opioids.
It was heartbreaking to watch the drug take hold of his body and kill his spirit. He didn’t care whether he lived or died, and it didn’t bother him that he was hurting his family along the way.
Living with and loving an addict is not easy. Anyone who says it is has never fully experienced the scope of addiction and the havoc it can wreak on all lives involved. It is easy for relationships to become strained and even crumble under the stress of fighting a disease that is often misunderstood.
But it is possible to love and support a friend or family member who is battling addiction without also losing yourself in the process. I’ve learned so much in my own family’s journey, and these are the five things I’d recommend if you find yourself on a similar path.
Support your loved one in their recovery.
It is so important for your loved one to know that you fully support their recovery attempts, and I say attempts because very often, it will take more than one for them to turn their life around.
Having patience is key. You can’t “fix” them, but you can offer to be there for them, to listen when they need to talk, to drive them to a recovery meeting, and to check in with them when you know there are temptations that they are facing.
My brother has known since the beginning that I will always answer the phone when he calls. I will pick him up any time of the day or night if he finds himself in a situation that he needs to get out of quickly. I’ve offered to go to his Narcotics Anonymous meetings with him. He knows that he can knock on my door when he doesn’t want to be alone or wants to feel like someone cares about what he is going through.
Doing what you can to support your loved one in their recovery will help them feel like they aren’t fighting alone but rather have an army behind them. It will give them a little light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.
Set healthy boundaries.
There is a big difference between supporting someone with addiction and enabling them, but the two often get muddled, so it’s imperative to set boundaries with your loved one to ensure that your relationship remains a healthy one and that you aren’t hindering them in their recovery.
When I stepped forward as a support system in my brother’s life, I made it clear that I would not do anything illegal for him. I would not purchase drugs for him, nor would I give him money to buy them. I would not drive him somewhere to buy drugs and I wouldn’t be dishonest with law enforcement if he was caught doing something illegal, in order to keep him from getting in trouble.
He understands that these boundaries are in place to keep me safe and our relationship healthy, and he has never crossed that line.
Remember, your loved one is not their addiction.
If you are close to anyone who has battled addiction, you know how it can change a person. When you live a life that revolves around finding your next fix, you become desperate to make sure you get that fix. You might lie, steal, and manipulate to get what you want.
Looking from the standpoint of a family member who is trying to be supportive, you have to understand and remember that it is the addiction that is making them do those things. Your loved one was likely not a liar or a thief before they became hooked.
Addiction changes the way the brain works, very much like dementia. They are still that person, but their mind is not functioning the way in which it normally would. This is why overcoming addiction is so difficult. They can’t just “snap out of it”.
Recovery is a very long process and must be cultivated in order to be successful.
Hold your loved one accountable.
Having an accountability partner is key to success in all things, whether that be work or health goals or trying to break a bad habit, but especially in sobriety. Someone who holds us accountable can offer support and motivation, share insight, and help us keep our word and stay on track.
My brother knows that my siblings and I are checking in on him and will hold him accountable for the decisions he makes. If he goes missing for several hours and we suspect he could be getting into trouble, you better believe we are calling him and asking him where he is, who he is with, and what he is doing.
This might sound harsh to treat an adult like this, but if an addict thinks no one is checking up on them, that’s one less thing preventing them from making a bad decision.
It’s important to remember when holding an addict accountable, that you are coming from a loving and supportive place. Rather than tossing accusations at them, let it be known that you are concerned for their safety and want to support them on their journey to sobriety.
Continue living your life.
One of the most difficult things about supporting a loved one who struggles with addiction is not allowing yourself to be dragged down in the battle. It’s so easy to become wrapped up in the drama, that it becomes your drama, and you can’t let that happen.
This is not your war to fight. Your loved one must want to become sober and they must take the steps necessary to achieve that. You cannot force it and you cannot make their fight, your life.
Supporting a loved one with addiction is difficult. You want them to become well again and will do just about anything to make that happen, but you must remember that your life is important too. You must continue to live your life and do things that bring you joy, no matter what. In order to be a strong support system for your loved one, you need to first take care of yourself.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, there is help. Visit the SAMHSA national helpline page or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357). It’s confidential, free, and available 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year.
Author’s note: At the time this article was published, my brother has been enrolled in a long-term drug treatment program and has been sober for nearly a year. He has successfully opened his own construction business and is planning to marry his fiancé this autumn.