Loving an Addict - Helping by Not Helping

I do a lot of work with addiction and the families of addicts. So I thought I’d write about how addiction affects families and offer more tips on self-care. To me, alcoholism and drug addiction are essentially the same. The family dynamics are the same and the behavior is the same whether someone is suffering from drug addiction or alcoholism. So, for this article, I use the terms alcoholic and addict interchangeably.

Addiction is a family malady. Sure, it’s easy to point to the addict as the one with the problem. But an addict moves through a family like a tornado, often creating chaos and leaving grief and hurt feelings in his/her wake.

The sad truth is that there is nothing we can do get someone to stop using drugs or to get sober from alcohol.

It’s also natural to want to help a loved one who is suffering. And many family members often get caught up in an addict’s chaos while trying to help or to get the addict to stop using or drinking. In fact many of the things people do to “help” end up encouraging and addict or alcoholic to continue using or drinking – a phenomenon known as Enabling.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say that an alcoholic has to “hit bottom” before they will get sober. In other words the pain, or consequences, of the addiction has to be greater than the benefits of continuing to use, or the fear of getting clean and/or sober. I agree. And one way to help an addict is to let him/her experience the full consequences of his/her addict behavior – to refuse to enable them by softening the results of their behaviors.

I know that may seem counter-intuitive. And it can be painful to stand back and let someone you love experience the full negative consequences of his or her behavior. But sometimes the best way to help an addict is by not helping.

So I’ve put together a list of nine strategies to stop enabling an addict or alcoholic. Only by getting out of an addict’s way can we actually help someone get clean or sober:

Get Support: Find a support system. This may include or be a combination of Al-Anon, codependency treatment, private therapy or counseling, a spiritual advisor or minister, or trustworthy friends. Here are some local resources:

            Alanon – (757) 566-1600 http://kyal-anon.org

Nar-Anon (502) 569-5769, http://www.nalouisville.net/

Helping by Not Helping: Remember that every time you protect an addict from the consequences of his/her addiction, you are encouraging them to continue using.

Don’t Rescue: Stop making excuses to others for situations or problems that are caused by the drinking and using of the alcoholic or addict. Do not phone the employer to excuse him/her from work. Do not make up stories to others about why the addict/alcoholic was unable to keep obligations such as showing up for the family reunion, or missing your 10-year-old daughter's dance recital.

Tell the Truth: Refuse to lie. Addicts and alcoholics frequently lie to cover up their drinking or using, and to avoid the consequences of their addictions. Refuse to join them in this.

Personal Responsibility: If the chemically dependent person makes a mess, such as being physically ill or tearing up the living room, do not clean it up. Allow them to see the damage and result of their actions. Let them clean up their own mess.

Allow Consequences: Do not bail them out of jail, pay fines or cover the cost of restitution. Do not pay bills you are not responsible for in areas that do not affect your safety or basic well being. Do not pay for the new TV he/she purchased. Do pay your own phone and electric bill.

Don’t Argue: Do not continue useless arguments. You can’t talk an alcoholic or addict out of drinking or using. Go to a movie, take a walk, read a good book, or go to a support group meeting.

Ultimatums: Do not make threats you are not 100% willing to immediately back up with appropriate actions. Example: "I'm leaving and you'll never see me or the kids again!" If you say you’re going to move out or end the relationship, be prepared to do it immediately.

Communicate: If safe and appropriate, discuss your concern with the person in a non-emotional way. But don’t expect them to change. Try to do this when they're sober, never in the heat of an argument or outburst.

To be sure, these are difficult steps to take. It can be heartbreaking to let someone sit in jail or get evicted from their housing. This is why it’s vital to get help and support.

You can get support at any of the organizations listed above. I’m also available to help. I offer therapy and counseling for families of addicts and alcoholics, and for addicts in early sobriety. If you're interested in learning more or scheduling an appointment, I can be reached at (812) 371-6330 or ken@insight-counseling.org.

Most of all, make sure you're taking good care of yourself.