Loving an Addict: The Help/Harm Paradox

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As a family therapist with years of experience in addiction treatment, I know how painful it is to love someone with a substance use problem. It means staying up all night worrying about what might happen. It means fearing the worst every time the phone rings. And for many people, it means tirelessly trying to figure out how to help.

It can feel helpless to witness a loved one struggle with substance abuse, and it’s natural to want to do everything possible to keep him or her safe. The problem is that when it comes to addiction, helping can sometimes be harmful. Many people try to support their loved ones in active addiction without realizing that they’re doing more harm than good. Despite their best intentions, they make efforts to help—offering money, for example—that ultimately allow their loved ones to keep damaging their lives.

Although loving a person who suffers from addiction can feel hopeless, you need to know that there is, in fact, hope. Here are a few ways that you can manage the difficult help/harm paradox, supporting your loved one while keeping yourself well.

1) Learn about addiction. As it is with most illnesses, the more informed you are about addiction, the better positioned you’ll be to effectively support your loved one. There are some excellent resources out there, like this one (http://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction
). Learn as much as you can, and develop a relationship with a therapist or professional who can answer your questions.

2) Aim to strike a balance. As difficult as it can be, it is possible to help your loved one without causing harm. This means being compassionate but keeping necessary boundaries in place. It means remaining in connection with your loved one while holding him or her accountable. You’ll need to determine and be clear about what you are and aren’t willing to tolerate. Only by identifying and being firm with your limits can you effectively support your loved one while keeping your mental and emotional health in tact.

3) Understand that recovery is a process. People can and do change, but they pass through several stages on their way to making it happen. These stages are not linear, so some stalls, stops, and reverses in progress are to be expected. Understand that although there are likely to be setbacks, your loved one is still capable of creating and sustaining a sober lifestyle.

4) Take care of yourself. When you fear for a loved one’s health and safety, it can be easy to lose yourself. But if you’re not well, you’re in no position to help anyone else get well. It’s essential that you attend to your personal needs, prioritizing your health and wellbeing. As you work on trying to get your loved one professional support, make sure you’re being supported as well.

6) Know that you are not alone. You’re tired, you’re angry, you’re afraid. But you’re not alone. Addiction doesn’t discriminate, and it’s more common than you might think. Al-Anon Family Groups (http://www.al-anon.org/home) are held every day in countless locations throughout the country, offering family members of people with substance abuse problems a place to vent their struggles in an atmosphere of mutual support.

Whether your loved one is in active addiction, in treatment, or in recovery, it’s possible for you to be an important ally and agent of change. Your support can make all the difference in your loved one’s process toward attaining a healthy, sober lifestyle. Educate yourself, take care of yourself, and make sure you’re being good to yourself while doing good for your loved one.

Denise Fournier, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, coach, blogger, and adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University. Her work with clients, as well as her writing, center on the Eastern traditions of Zen Buddhism and Taoism, which encourage a balanced, open, and accepting approach to life.

For more from Dr. Denise, visit www.evergreen-therapy.com, and subscribe to the newsletter. You can also catch her on Instagram and Facebook

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