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Addiction in the Family: Is Someone You Love Affected by Another Person’s Addiction?

Anyone who is negatively affected by someone else’s addiction knows that there is currently a lot of help out there for the addicts themselves – in the form of residential treatment centers, detoxes, and outpatient counseling – but there is still, to date, far too 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 behaviors 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, neighbors, fellow students, teachers, bosses, doctors and even therapists – and the multitude of 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, may not be a fit for others. Addiction treatment centers have begun to offer limited programs to the families of their clients – some for a week, others for a weekend, neither of which is enough, in my opinion. Some outpatient addiction counseling centers sponsor ‘affected others’ groups for loved ones of addicts. As happy as I am to see this, there are still so many more services needed for this population.  

If you’re a struggling family member of an addict, you know exactly what I mean.

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 I struck up a conversation with someone I’d never met before. 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 heroin 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. His denial continues to reach mammoth proportions, to the dismay of those who care about him and the members of his family who are still alive.

The woman I spoke with (we’ll call her Sally) explained that she has tried on many occasions over the years to talk with her brother about this – she herself is devastated by the tragic loss of her young nephew and extremely concerned about the dangerous path her niece is traveling. But each time she broaches the subject with Bill she is told, unequivocally in no uncertain terms, that she is to mind her own business and not come to him with her feelings about this.

Of course, Sally leaves these encounters very hurt, scared and angry about Bill’s response. She feels that 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 Sally 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 Sally’s compelling story, I began to understand that there is yet another part of this equation of ‘loved ones of addicts’ – those who are the extended loved ones 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 feeling quite powerless to do anything to help them.

Just like the loved ones of addicts, people like Sally 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, fearful denial. Rather than trying to help his daughter – and feel his very sad, devastatingly uncomfortable emotions about what happened to his son in that process – Bill has instead made the choice to pretend that nothing is amiss in his family.

And when people make that decision, there is often very little we can do for them – just as there is sometimes little we can do right away to help an addict who is unwilling to stop their addiction.

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. If you care about someone who is negatively affected by another’s addiction, you will need to find a way to have appropriate boundaries and learn how to take care of your own life, as you also support other family members in their time of need. As painful as it may be to watch a family imploding, as Bill’s loved ones have been observing, 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 deeply believe that people can change – and I always remain hopeful they’ll decide to do just that, especially when they can see the benefit of making that choice. I witness this every day with my clients, and it happened that way in my own personal life as well.

If you are the ‘loved one of a loved one’ and currently don’t know the best ways to support the situation, you have a few choices. 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. 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 centers.  There are also skilled counselors who will allow you to explore the differences between the behaviors of helping and enabling so that you can make the healthiest choices when dealing with the people you love – be they addicts or other loved ones.

As an Addictions Therapist, I work predominantly with families who are negatively affected by addiction – either by their own codependency, or the damaging effects of someone else’s addictive behavior – or, in some cases, with an extended family member of someone struggling with addiction. No matter where it hits a family unit, addiction hurts everyone – and everyone needs to heal.

I wish you all a strong and lasting recovery!


Images Courtesy of iStock

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