Seven Ways to Help Yourself When You Love an Addict
Loving an addict can feel like you’re on a perpetual rollercoaster of emotions — anger, sadness, hate, love, fear, relief, guilt, disbelief — sometimes experiencing all within mere moments. It’s not surprising that research shows loved ones of addicted individuals suffer from increased stress, depression and poorer overall well-being.
Addiction is a disease that affects the entire family system. It can feel nearly impossible to untangle yourself from the worry, frustration and deeply ingrained roles played in the addiction cycle. However, self-care is critical for helping both yourself and your loved one.
See a Mental Health Professional
Whether or not your loved one is getting professional help, you should consider getting help for yourself. Speaking with a therapist can have immense benefits for family members of addicted individuals. A mental health professional can help you address underlying issues like trauma, attachment styles and environmental factors that contribute to unhealthy relationship patterns. You’ll learn how to support yourself in the midst of your loved one’s addiction, develop resiliency, unlearn enabling behaviors and set healthy boundaries with your loved one.
Accept What You Cannot Change
As much as you may wish, you cannot do the work for an addict. You can let them know you care for them. You can learn not to enable them. You can help them get treatment. You may even draw upon the help of a professional interventionist. But you cannot will their destructive behavior away.
Whitney Jones, MSW, an interventionist and recovery coach with over two decades of experience in helping addicted individuals and their families says, “One of the best things a loved one can do is take care of themselves.”
You cannot be responsible for the choices they make. Perhaps one of the hardest realities to accept when you love an addict is that the desire to change must ultimately come from them. You can take steps to help support them and ease them forward in their journey toward sobriety, but at the end of the day, you cannot control their internal motivation to change their life.
Support the addict, not the addiction. Boundaries can help addicts rethink their behavior and can help you rebuild your sense of self. Whether financial boundaries, physical boundaries or emotional boundaries, determine which behaviors of the addict are unacceptable.
Stick with your boundaries. Addicts are often talented at knowing just the right buttons to push to get what they want from you. Blurry boundary lines can keep addicts and their loved ones in their same roles, which can enable the addicted individual and reap emotional havoc on the family member. “You need to implement what you say you are going to do, or you are going to lose credibility, and they are going to walk all over you,” says Jones. “It is important to follow through with whatever consequence you have decided upon.”
Have Them Sign a Contract
To reinforce boundaries, Jones recommends writing up a contract that your loved one must sign. It is difficult to verbally communicate with an addict, especially when they are using. Come up with a written agreement with the help of a sober coach or interventionist if needed, and clearly spell out the do’s and don’ts of what you will and won’t tolerate from the addict. Sign that contract and have them sign it. A home agreement is a tangible understanding you can refer back to if and when they relapse, break a boundary or engage in risk-taking behavior.
Join a Support Group
The effects of addiction can be isolating. Isolation can fuel depression, poor self-esteem and loneliness. Groups for loved ones of addicts such as Nar-anon, Al-Anon/Alateen, Co-Dependents Anonymous and COSA can offer support and camaraderie for those whose loved ones are struggling with addiction. Hearing from and sharing with others in similar circumstances often feels cathartic, supportive and offers you new insight into dealing with challenging situations in your own life. “Al-Anon and similar groups can help you work on anger, acceptance, powerlessness and spirituality,” says Jones. “They teach a lot about self-care and also help participants understand addiction as a disease.”
Much research supports the benefit of fitness on reducing stress. Exercise can help ease physical and mental tension and help you effectively deal with future stress. For example, a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that physical activity helps the brain develop more resilience to stress. Researchers set up a series of experiments with mice that showed that the ventral hippocampus in the brains of animals that had regular exercise was more able to regulate anxiety when exposed to a stressful situation. So make time to hit the gym, take a brisk walk or climb the stairs on your lunchbreak at work.
Addiction is no laughing matter, but a chuckle now and then may help you cope better, lift your spirits and lighten the heavy load you’re carrying. Studies done with stressed employees, depressed geriatric individuals and those with a terminal illness have all indicated humor as having beneficial effects such as improved mood and decreased stress. Watch videos of your favorite standup comedian. Read a comic book. Call that friend who always seems so skilled at cracking you up. You may find there is something to the old proverb: Laughter is the best medicine.
By Sara Schapmann
Stress-coping morbidity among family members of addiction patients in Singapore
A Healthy Way to Handle Work Place Stress Through Yoga, Meditation and Soothing Humor
Evaluation of a Standardized Humor Group in a Clinical Setting: A Feasibility Study for Older Patients With Depression http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/gps.3893/abstract
The Use of Humor in Patients With Recurrent Ovarian Cancer: A Phenomenological Study http://journals.lww.com/ijgc/Fulltext/2013/05000/The_Use_of_Humor_in_Patients_With_Recurrent.30.aspx