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6 Things to Know If Someone You Love Struggles With Addiction

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The last time I spoke with my mother was on June 20. It was a regular conversation. A normal conversation. An uninteresting conversation. We chatted about the weather, the pandemic, and what was on TV. But it was also a frustrating conversation because my mother was angry. Her speech was slurred, and she was repeating herself. She told me the same story three or four times.

Immediately, I knew why. My mother was drunk… again. This time at 9 a.m. But when I hung up the phone, I had no idea it would be the last time she would speak.

She would drink.

I didn’t know I would find her face down in her own vomit four days later. But I did. Because my mother was sick, physically and mentally. Because she was an alcoholic.

Ironically, when I was a child, she wasn’t. My mother was firm, rigid and stubborn as hell but I never saw her drink. Booze was never in our house. But after my father’s sudden death, things changed. She changed, and she swallowed her sadness.

She used alcohol to heal. To deal. To cope.

But beer couldn’t help her. Booze couldn’t save her, and neither could I. Despite numerous interventions and attempts, she died from alcohol-induced pneumonia. She was 64 years old. And even though I knew — and still know — her death wasn’t my fault, sometimes I am consumed by shame. I am angry, at her and myself, and I am wracked with guilt. And I am not alone. Many who love people who struggle with addiction feel the exact same way.

Here are six things I want the spouses, children and parents who love someone who struggles with addiction to know and understand.

1. Addiction is an illness.

People with a substance use disorder do not use or drink because they’re weak. They imbibe in or consume substances because they have an illness. Whether they started using substances to cope with a loss, mental illness or other stressors, addiction is a disease.

“Addiction does not occur because of moral weakness, a lack of willpower or an unwillingness to stop,” Jillian Hardee — an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan — wrote. Rather, addiction occurs when said substances make chemical changes to the brain.

“[They] can no longer voluntarily choose to not use drugs or alcohol, even if it means losing everything they once valued.”

2. Love can’t ‘cure’ addiction.

You may believe you can help your loved one by loving them, i.e. you may believe that they will stop drinking or taking drugs if they feel more connected and less alone. However, that may not be the case. You cannot snuggle your loved one into sobriety — they have to be ready to take the first step.

“You can’t cure a disease,” a Very Well Mind article said. “You need outside help. Alcoholics usually go through a few stages before they are ready to make a change. Until an alcoholic begins to contemplate quitting, any actions you take to ‘help’ them quit will often be met with resistance.”

That said, love (and loss) can be a powerful motivator, and in some cases, your actions can help. Interventions can be beneficial, for example. You may also need to step back and let them bottom out. However, this is a slippery slope, and you cannot assume responsibility for your loved one’s actions or sobriety. It is not your fault if your loved one is unable to get or stay clean.

3. You may be powerless, but you are not helpless.

While you cannot fix the person in your life struggling with substance use, you can support them. “Loved ones hold a great deal of influence in the life of a person struggling with drugs or alcohol,” Kristina Ackermann of American Addiction Centers wrote, adding:

Gathering a group of loved ones together to stage an intervention — as long as it is thoroughly planned and focused on helping the addict — can be a way to show love and support while also setting boundaries around addictive behaviors.

Suggesting appropriate resources may also be helpful, and practicing tough love is important, i.e. do not cover up for them or bail them out. Why? Tough lessons can be important lessons.

4. Don’t blame yourself for a loved one’s addiction.

While loved ones of those struggling with addiction blame themselves — addiction is no one’s fault. “If your loved one is truly an alcoholic, they are going to drink no matter what you do or say,” Very Well Mind explained.

So let go of the guilt and shame, no matter the why. No matter the who, where or what. People with substance use issues don’t ask for the disease and it’s not your fault.

5. There is hope.

While addiction can seem and feel hopeless, it’s not. Millions of Americans recover every year. What’s more, many “survivors” go on to share the message. People who have recovered from a substance use disorder regularly mentor others. So try to remain positive. Remain enthusiastic, and know that as long as there is life, there is hope.

6. And finally, realize self-care is not selfish.

Caring for yourself may seem like an impossible challenge, especially when your spouse, mother, father or child is sick. In fact, it may be the furthest thing from your mind. However, it is imperative you care for yourself. This is one instance where you have to put your oxygen mask on first.

Find a therapist, psychologist, or counselor — specifically one who focuses on alcoholism or addiction. Consider joining a support group, like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon, and find time for things that bring you joy. Take a hike, go on a run, get a massage, and sing freely and loudly. The point isn’t what you do, it is that you do something (anything) for yourself.

Header image via Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Originally published: November 2, 2020
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