For several years, I’ve been writing and speaking about what happens to the loved ones of people with addictions, and the roller-coaster chaos they often experience while desperately trying to ‘help’ the addicts in their lives. While there is now a lot of help out there for the addicts themselves – in the form of treatment centres, detoxes, and outpatient counselling—there is still, to date, little assistance offered to those who suffer right along with them.
LOVED ONES OF ADDICTS STRUGGLE TOO
To me, this is a travesty because for every one person using addictive behaviours of any sort, there are always a number of people who are affected by the many manifestations of that addiction. When I give talks for loved ones of addicts, I often ask for a volunteer from the audience to come to the front of the room to represent the addict. Then I ask the audience who might be affected by this person’s addiction. When I hear ‘mother’ called out, I ask that person to come up and represent the mother—and I do the same when I hear father, spouse, children, co-workers, neighbours, fellow students, teachers, bosses, doctors and even therapists—and the multitude of many other relationships that are negatively affected by one person’s addiction. At the end of that exercise, I often have more people onstage with me than are remaining in the audience!
Thankfully, some loved ones of addicts are gradually discovering they are not alone. They are hearing about support groups like Al-Anon—which, although they work well for some, are not a fit for others. Addiction treatment centres have begun to offer programs to the families of their clients, and some outpatient addiction counselling centres sponsor ‘affected others’ groups for loved ones of addicts. As wonderful as this is, there are still so many more services needed for this population.
IS YOUR LOVED ONE AFFECTED BY ANOTHER PERSON’S ADDICTION?
Recently I became aware of another type of relationship that can also be just as difficult and frustrating to deal with as being the loved one of an addict: being the loved one OF a loved one of someone struggling with addiction.
Last week, while at a local Vancouver hospital having a minor test done, I struck up a conversation with one of the nurses assisting me as I waited. She told me about her job and asked me about mine. When I told her I was an Addictions Therapist working primarily with the loved ones of addicts, she began to tell me her story.
Her brother is the loved one of an addict; in fact, his only son had already died from a heroine overdose and his daughter was also in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction. Despite all of this evidence, her brother (we’ll call him Bill) refuses to accept that addiction even exists in his family and will not tolerate anyone telling him anything different.
As a well-known person in his small community, Bill chooses to stay in some very deep denial because he doesn’t want anyone to know that his family is being torn apart by this. He won’t allow his wife to discuss it with anyone either—so there is no counselling or true healing happening. The people who know this family are aware that their son has died, but the actual cause of death—a drug overdose—has not been publicly revealed. Many people know that their daughter is acting out with mind-altering substances, but this behaviour is also diminished by the father’s massive denial.
The nurse (we’ll call her Sarah) explained that she has tried on many occasions over the years to talk with her brother about this—she is devastated by the tragic loss of her young nephew and extremely concerned about the dangerous path her niece is travelling. But each time she broaches the subject with Bill she is told, in no uncertain terms, that she is to mind her own business and not come to him with her feelings about this.
Of course, Sarah feels very hurt and angry about her brother’s response. She feels like she has lost not only her beloved nephew but also her brother—and she is clear that her niece could be the next statistic. But Sarah also feels like she has been emotionally bullied and abused by Bill for so many years that she has chosen to no longer have any contact with him or his family.
After hearing Sarah’s compelling story, I began to understand that there is yet another part of this equation of ‘loved ones of addicts’—being the loved one of a loved one of someone with an addiction. I understand now that there are many, many people who love people who love addicts—and who are sometimes quite powerless to do anything to help them.
Just like the loved ones of addicts, people like Sarah will not be able to help someone who doesn’t want help. Try as she might, her efforts are in vain because her brother chooses to stay mired in his own ego-driven denial. Rather than trying to help his daughter—and feel his very sad, devastatingly uncomfortable feelings about what happened to his son in the process—Bill has instead made the choice to preserve his own VIP standing in his community. And even though several years have passed since she has been in contact with her brother, Sarah’s eyes welled with tears as she relayed her family’s tragic story to me.
UNHEALTHY BOUNDARIES IN A FAMILY
Another family I’ve been working with consists of the parents and the two siblings of a young woman with a heroin and pot addiction. There are four other people involved here who are definitely entrenched in the roller-coaster chaos that I call being ‘addicted to the addict’s addiction,’ because all of the attention goes to the addict in the family
Unfortunately, before coming to see me for counselling, the parents disagreed often about how to deal with this situation—one was the stricter parent while the other was more lenient. This contributed to even more confusion and stress in the household than would normally be present before any type of addiction is thrown into the mix.
The young woman with the addiction (we’ll call her Erin) had been allowed to live in the family home for several years—using drugs there and often coming home drunk or high. Because she was not working, Erin was not required by the parents to contribute financially to the household. She also did not do any chores in the family home, and became quite belligerent and verbally abusive whenever anyone tried to talk with her about that. She often was awake at 3 am, high with the munchies, noisily banging things around in the kitchen while making herself a snack—and waking up the other four people who also lived there.
When, after a few counselling sessions with me, the parents finally decided together that they had had enough of that kind of behaviour, they set some boundaries with their addicted daughter: she would no longer be permitted to use drugs in their home or come home drunk or high; she would need to get a job and contribute to the household; or if she refused, she would have to move out.
All of this actually sounds very healthy, but the problem was that they gave her no time deadlines and they didn’t maintain the boundaries they had set. They were basically teaching their daughter how to treat them—which was, in a word, disrespectfully—each time they gave in and allowed her to continue her toxic behaviours. They had great trouble understanding that ‘caving’ in this way was not a loving act toward Erin, or toward themselves, or toward their other two children.
Another sticking point occurred when Erin finally decided to leave home, after quite a while of being pressured to conform to the rules of the household. At this point, she was told by her maternal grandmother (who was 85 and not in good health) that she could live with her—a decision that could only be a recipe for disaster. Because neither parent saw any benefit to this plan, they tried to dissuade the grandmother from enabling Erin in this way.
In this scenario, Grandmother was ‘the loved one of the loved ones’ of the addict. Although on the outside it appeared that she meant well, the decision to let Erin live there was really about meeting her own needs—she was a lonely widow who wanted to have someone help her with household chores, go shopping for groceries, and provide her with warmth and company.
But being a self-absorbed addict in active addiction, Erin was completely unwilling to meet any of her grandmother’s needs in exchange for room and board. And because Grandmother refused to support Erin’s parents in the healthy boundaries they were striving to set for the daughter they loved, Erin was able to continue her toxic manipulative behaviours—and her drug and alcohol misuse—for an even longer time.
Once again, this was not a loving act toward Erin, but Grandmother did not feel like she could set any healthy boundaries with her without risking a major confrontation, which she wanted to completely avoid. It was only when she became even sicker and required hospitalization that she felt she was able to evict Erin from her home with the help of a couple of well-positioned hospital social workers.
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO SUPPORT YOUR LOVED ONES?
There must be as many—if not more—loved ones of ‘loved ones’ as there are actual loved ones of addicts in the world. And unless a united front is established by all concerned, there can be no positive outcome. I see this as one of the worst kinds of lose-lose situations, because so many people continue to needlessly suffer when loved ones don’t work together to help the addict as well as themselves. If you are the loved one of a ‘loved one,’ you will need to find a way to have healthy boundaries and learn how to take care of your own life, as you support other family members in their time of need. As painful as it may be to watch a family imploding, as both Bill’s and Erin’s have been doing, nothing can happen until at least one person in that family decides to do something differently—such as setting and maintaining healthy boundaries and actually letting help in.
As the old saying goes, if nothing changes, nothing changes. But it is also true that when one thing changes, everything changes. I have hope that people can—and do—change, especially when they can see the benefit of making that choice. I witness this every day with my own clients, and it happened that way in my own personal life as well. The power of transformation is the same for all of us—all we need to do is embrace that possibility and start experiencing the benefits of that courageous choice.
If you are a loved one of a ‘loved one’ and currently don’t know the best ways to support the situation, you have a few choices. A support group such as Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, or “Affected Others” might be a good start—you can find these in your area by Googling them online or by calling local addiction treatment centres. My book Loving an Addict, Loving Yourself: The Top 10 Survival Tips for Loving Someone with an Addiction will help you to understand addiction in a new way and also provides tips and solutions for best supporting both addicts and other loved ones. There are also skilled counsellors who will allow you to explore the differences between the behaviours of helping and enabling so that you can make the healthiest choices when dealing with the people you love.
I wish you all the best of luck!