Understandably the help that’s available for addiction mostly focuses on the suffering addict. As well as drug addicts this includes help for alcoholics and those with behavioral addictions – such as gambling, sex, food, shopping, and work.
While this is obviously excellent, the people closest to the addict are often overlooked. It can be absolutely devastating to discover someone you care about is struggling with an addiction.
Then, day-to-day living with an addict can seem impossible. Even for those who do not live with an addict, anxiety can rise to unmanageable levels.
Due to someone’s addiction there can be deceit, incidents to resolve, financial costs, and the overwhelming loss of peace of mind over their addiction and behaviors. It so often causes partners, family members, and friends to struggle themselves – and can lead to depression.
But thankfully there is also some considerable help for partners, friends, and family affected by someone else’s addiction.
Twelve Steps groups for family and friends
Most people have heard of the Twelve Steps today. This is not the least because many celebrities including comedian and mental health campaigner Russell Brand and actors Tom Hardy and Anthony Hopkins have spoken positively about them.
But this recovery program for beating addictions – and as “a way to happy and effective living for many, alcoholic or not” as Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) co-founder and creator of the Twelve Steps Bill Wilson described it – has also been developed as a way to help the families and friends of alcoholics and addicts.
There are some groups to consider getting in touch with – Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Gam-Anon, and Families Anonymous (FA). They are basically for people to come together who are worried about someone with a drinking (Al-Anon), drug (Nar-Anon), or gambling (Gam-Anon) problem.
FA is a worldwide Twelve Steps fellowship of family members and friends affected by individuals with drug, alcohol, or related behavioral issues. There is also Alateen, which is a part of Al-Anon but specifically for teenage relatives and friends of alcoholics.
In most cases, these groups will have regular weekly meetings where people who understand what each other is going through can listen and offer support. People at the groups will talk about alcoholism/addiction, how it progresses, how it changes people – and how it affects everyone around the alcoholic/addict.
Experience, strength, and hope
People at the meetings will share their experience, strength, and hope. Learning more in this way puts people in a much better position to help their loved ones.
There is also the opportunity for the groups to go through an adapted version of the Twelve Steps. This recovery program has helped millions of people around the world for more than 80 years.
As Al-Anon states on its website (and that could also apply to other addictions): “Alcoholism is a family disease. The disease affects all those who have a relationship with a problem drinker.
“Those of us closest to the alcoholic suffer the most, and those who care the most can easily get caught up in the behavior of another person. We react to the alcoholic’s behavior.
“We focus on them, what they do, where they are, how much they drink. We try to control their drinking for them. We take on the blame, guilt, and shame that really belong to the drinker. We can become as addicted to the alcoholic, as the alcoholic is to alcohol. We, too, can become ill.”
Some of the key messages at these meetings are that the addiction is the fault of no one person and so self-blame and blaming of others ought to stop. Also, it is often stated that family and friends need to realize they are powerless over the addict and their addiction.
There are no dues or fees for membership in these groups. They are funded through the voluntary contributions of members, whose identities are protected. This allows a sense of honesty and trust to develop.
What can I do if I have a friend or relative who’s an addict?
It’s extremely important for the friend or family member of an addict to know how they can look after themselves. This is for themselves but also so that they are there to help the suffering addict in the most positive way.
For that reason, it pays to know the difference between enabling and helping. Basically, enabling is doing things for an addict that they could do themselves if they were free of their addiction. Enabling includes trying to protect the addict from the consequences of their behavior.
Some ways to help include:
- Do not hide it away or make excuses. Sometimes family members or friends try to ignore an addiction problem because they feel ashamed or don’t want to admit there is a problem. But if left untreated, addictions nearly always get progressively worse.
- Learn about your loved one’s problem. Online resources are plentiful these days or speak with someone at one of the Twelve Steps groups or a therapist who has specific knowledge about the addiction problem.
- Remember the only person you can truly change is yourself – that’s your reaction and attitude to any situation. So try not to get angry or frustrated if your loved one with the addiction problem doesn’t or won’t make positive changes. Do not blame yourself. Encourage the person with the problem to take responsibility.
- Ensure open communication. Speak about their problem rather than them as a person. Shaming or judging them could drive them away. Do not lecture, accuse, argue or threaten.
- Remain positive, have empathy and speak with kindness, ask the person you care about how they think you can help them in the best way. Speak about putting that help into action. Tell them that you care about and want to help them. It’s fine to talk about your feelings – for instance, that you feel anxious around their addiction or frightened when they are drunk. If it’s a family member and you know of any family history of addiction or alcoholism, mention this as it could help.
- Listen to them carefully. Ask for their input. This will make them feel less alienated and alone. It can also help gain understanding of exactly where they are.
- Encourage treatment, whether that’s attending a Twelve Steps group or therapy. Find out what is available. Offer to take them wherever they need to go for help. See them in the door. If it costs and you can afford it, you could offer to pay – so long as they are clear that this must be taken seriously.
- Even when they start recovery they will still need your encouragement and loving support. If they are resistant to starting recovery, think about having a family meeting or an intervention.
- Find the right balance between being encouraging but not pushing or suffocating them. Always give them sufficient space.
- Do not lie to protect them from the consequences of their addiction and behaviors. While it’s not pleasant to see if they are getting into trouble or creating problems, it is more likely that they will take action if they have to face the negative impact of their addiction and behavior.
- Never put yourself in a dangerous situation. Ensure you have another family member or friend you can always contact for help.
- Anyone who has someone they care about struggling with an addiction needs to give themselves some time to relax and to eat well every day, also to get enough sleep. Set healthy boundaries that need to be adhered to each day.
Therapy for partners, family members and friends
Many people see this as a chance to learn more about themselves and perhaps address any of their own issues. It’s a time when therapy is often sought for the first time – and proves to be greatly beneficial.
The history behind Al-Anon’s formation shows this. It was formed in 1951 – 16 years after the founding of AA – by Lois Wilson, wife of AA co-founder Bill Wilson. She realized in meeting other partners of alcoholics in recovery in AA that all the partners actually shared some common character traits, which is perhaps one of the reasons they had ended up with alcoholic partners.
They also shared some common emotions as a result of their partner’s alcoholism. These were negative and painful feelings of anger, depression, guilt, and confusion.
A group of the partners started their own meetings and followed an adapted version of the Twelve Steps, which they had seen to be so effective in their partners. This was not only enabling them to quit their addiction to alcohol but to transform them so that they could live an overall peaceful and happy life.
For some people though, Twelve Steps groups for friends and family members are just not for them. For these people, they realize that therapy is something that could help them. For some who do attend the meetings they also find therapy is an additional help.
Our therapists have helped many people who have come to realize they could do with some guidance and help too, as a result of seeing someone they care about struggle with addiction. If you think you are addicted to something or are close to someone who is, please get in touch with one of our experts who can help you or your loved one.