CARE-ing for a Friend/ Family Member who is Misusing Drugs or Alcohol

Caring for a loved one struggling with the mental and physical reliance on substances can be a very painful experience, especially for those who experience the effects first-hand. Substance use impacts the entire family system; therefore it is important to have support at all steps along the way–from the time of emerging concerns to treatment and recovery. Knowing what to do is not always easy, especially when watching a loved one engage in self-defeating behavior.

Parents with children who are misusing drugs or alcohol often struggle with how to keep their child safe while also trying to create boundaries around rules, consequences, and expectations of behavior. From the couples perspective, being in a relationship with someone with substance use concerns often can create feelings of fear and resentment. Arguments, separation, and divorce are common. Infidelity or domestic violence may be present. If children are involved, there may be additional fear or worries. Consider the costs–financial, legal, and the long-term implications on relationships. Living with a partner who struggles with alcohol or drug use is often surrounded by feelings of shame They may blame themself for their loved one’s addiction, take their behavior personally, or attempt to keep it hidden. There may be a sense of feeling out of control, especially when the loved one is in denial there is a problem or is unwilling to seek treatment.

Friends or family members may find themselves in the role of reinforcing and contributing to co-dependency within the relationship. Friends or co-workers may be struggling with drug or alcohol use but present as “functional”. Since addiction can be viewed as a disease, early intervention is best to begin a path of healing.

Here are Five Ways to Show you CARE

1. Express Concerns

Communicate concerns in love, especially when these are emerging. Being direct and compassionate with examples of specific behavior is helpful. Responding when emotions are heightened or speaking out of anger is not going to be effective. Trying to have a conversation when someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol is also not going to be effective. Conserve your emotional energy for a time when they are able to be engaged, willing to listen, and respond constructively.

2. Understand Addiction

Be familiar with how substance abuse impacts the body and brain, and the models of treatment that can support. Understand the brain’s role in addiction and how this works with tolerance, dependency, and withdrawal.

3. Offer Support

Offer to assist with scheduling an appointment, going to therapy, and/ or attending support meetings. It is going to take a support team to treat alcohol and drug concerns. Recovery is an on-going process. Showing support by not joining in on drinking or drug use is also helpful. SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), 1-800-487-4889 is a confidential, free, 24/7 service for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.

4. Don’t Take Full Responsibility

There is a balance between caring for a loved one with addiction and enabling them. It is understandable to want to protect from the consequences of addiction; however, removing or lessening the negative consequences leads to reinforcing substance use. For example, if my roommate is out all night partying and I find myself waking them up to get to work, I am enabling. If my partner is struggling with drinking too much and I am bringing them alcoholic beverages or making excuses for their behavior, I am enabling. Joining together with them in compassion and empathy is different than reinforcing substance use.

5. Seek out Your Own Therapy

This is a difficult journey to go through alone, so self-care is important when someone you love is misusing drugs or alcohol. You may feel a roller-coaster of emotions being in a relationship with someone struggling with addiction. You may also be feeling torn about decisions within the relationship. Having a space to process thoughts and feelings while learning ways to cope can be incredibly helpful. Your therapist can help areas that are difficult such as strategies to help create healthy boundaries, rebuild trust, learn self-compassion, and work through painful experiences. Anger, fear, regret, shame, frustration, sadness–these are all common emotions.

You are not alone. Though it may feel isolating, many have or are walking a similar path, supporting a loved one with substance abuse. Connecting with support systems and community is a key aspect of caring for oneself in the journey of caring for one another.

Written by Charlotte Johnson MA, LPCC 

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