How to Cope When Your Loved One Is an Addict

When someone you love is an addict, it's common to experience a whole host of negative emotions: sadness, denial, disbelief, relief when she seems better, and anger when she relapses. It can feel like youíre all alone, and a sense of hopelessness and loneliness can be pervasive.

While distressing, the experience is not uncommon: More than half of all adults have a family history of alcoholism or problem drinking, and more than seven million children live in a household where at least one parent is dependent on or has abused alcohol. And then there's the family members of those abusing substances other alcohol, like marijuana, prescription medications, and illicit drugs.

The toll that addiction and alcohol abuse can take on a family is monumental: "I can think of few conditions that put such a stress on families," says Howard L. Forman, MD, medical director of Addiction Consulting Services at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "And the stigma of discussing it with others can lead a family to become an isolated nexus of misery and despair."

While the experience can be very painful, there are ways you can reduce the stress of caring for someone struggling with alcohol, drugs, or gambling:

1. Take Care of Yourself

"Itís important to engage in self-care," says Forman. "Your loved one may be losing their life to addiction, but try and prevent a second life or multiple lives from being lost in the process." Itís important to eat well and get enough rest since the constant stress of coping with an addict can actually make you sick.

"When your stress level rises significantly, your blood pressure can go up and you can have trouble sleeping," says Scott Krakower, DO, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, NY. "You can really go through significant trauma when there is an addict in your life.

2. Set Boundaries

While you want to help your loved one, itís important to establish limits and stick to them, says Krakower. Let the person know that you are willing to help and that you will be there for them, provided that they will engage in the recovery process.

3. Donít Take Relapses Personally

A loved oneís relapse can seem like a personal insult. "You feel betrayed," says Mark Willenbring, MD, DLFAPA, director of the Alltyr Clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota. "You want to say to the person, 'How could you do this to me?'" But recovery takes persistent effort over time, and multiple efforts are usually necessary, Willenbring says.

4. Consider Joining a Recovery Support Group

Participating in a support group can help you realize that you are not alone and that you are not responsible for the addictís drinking and drug use, says the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Speaking with others in the same situation can also help you realize that you are not alone and that you need to take care of yourself, even if the addict isnít taking care of himself. Organizations like Al-Anon Family Groups (al-anon.org), Adult Children of Alcoholics (adultchildren.org), Nar-Anon Family Groups (nar-anon.org) and Gam-Anon (gam-anon.org) are geared towards family members and loved ones of people with substance abuse and gambling issues.

5. Consider a Family Intervention

If the person simply wonít get help, you may want to try a family intervention, says the Council. When a trained and experienced interventionist gets involved in a planned and professionally directed intervention, it can be a very powerful tool for the person agreeing to accept treatment; it will also provide some much-needed guidance, education, and support for you. For more information, please visit the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence for a list of local affiliates, which can provide referrals: ncadd.org.

Scott Krakower, DO, reviewed this article.

Sources

Scott Krakower, DO. Phone interview on March 10, 2016.

Mark Willenbring, MD. Phone interview on March 16, 2016.

Howard L. Forman, MD. Email interview on March 18, 2016.

"Family Disease." National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Last updated February 24, 2016.

"Drug Facts: Nationwide Trends." National Institute on Drug Abuse. Revised June 2015.

"Facts about Alcohol." National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Last updated July 25, 2015.