How to Help Someone with an Addiction without Losing Yourself
By Ashley Hubbard
Do you tell lies to cover up for someone else’s addiction? Are plans frequently canceled or changed because of them? Have you been hurt or embarrassed by their behavior? Do you have financial problems because of their addiction?
If you found yourself nodding in agreement with these questions or picturing similar situations, you know what it feels like to have someone close to you have a substance abuse problem.
Having a friend or family member who is living with addiction can feel a bit like trying to navigate a challenging puzzle except the stakes are a lot higher – sometimes even life or death. You’re likely wondering how you can begin to help or perhaps you’ve been helping but are now so stressed out and at your wit’s end. Either one of these situations can leave you having no idea how to support your loved one without draining your own mental health.
Deciding to even try to help someone struggling with addiction can be an entire process let alone deciding how to help. However, your loved one will have a greater chance of sobriety with support and therefore if you are in a healthy mental space and want to help, you should enter it with as much knowledge and resources as possible.
Even if someone wants help, this doesn’t mean it will be an easy process. And, then, of course, there is the likelihood that they don’t want your help or even believe they have a problem.
Being in a relationship with (or close to) someone who has an addiction problem requires you to take care of yourself as well. The old adage you can’t pour from an empty cup is common for a reason. Just like you are supposed to put the oxygen mask on you before helping your child, you should practice self-care before losing yourself caring for your loved one.
If I knew how many times I have heard the words “My drinking doesn’t affect you” or “I can stop anytime I want” and believed it, I’d honestly tell you so that you could see you’re not alone. My ex-boyfriend of four years (present-day is two years post-relationship) suffered from alcoholism. And, I suffered right along with him. Substance abuse has a traumatizing and often long-lasting effect on those close to the individual. Addiction can lead to poor mental and emotional health, abuse, major financial complications, and much more.
Have you lost yourself already?
Do you feel like you’ve already lost yourself in another person’s substance addiction? It’s okay to feel defeated or like you’ve let them down. It happens and you’re most definitely not alone. With addiction comes chaos and challenges and no one gave us manuals for these situations.
Loving someone with an addiction can lead you to spending every waking moment focused on their addiction. When I was with my partner, I found myself having to pick up all the pieces.
He had a business that I kept up and running by making up for him canceling on clients (and somehow still keeping a 5-star review rating), doing side hustles to make up for the money he spent on alcohol, and literally doing the very labor-intensive job myself (leading to back and shoulder injuries over the years) when he was “sick” and couldn’t do it himself.
At home, I covered up his drinking the best I could by finding the hidden bottles and disposing of them and making excuses for his behavior. I stopped making plans with my friends because I was always canceling when I had to cover for him at work.
Do you worry anytime you have to leave them? I did too. Do you hide any cash you have? I did too after being told many times that my missing money was my own inability to count or my own fault for losing things.
Substance abuse absolutely has the power to break down relationships of any kind and shatter the self-esteem of the loved ones involved. Understanding how to help someone with substance abuse without losing yourself is crucial.
What to do for yourself
Support groups – Al-Anon, Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDa), or Nar-Anon (Alateen for children and teenagers) are excellent support groups for loved ones with addiction problems. Just like your loved one needs support, you also need support. You don’t have to do this on your own. You may need to go to several different meetings to find one that “clicks” for you.
Boundaries – Substance abuse or not, boundaries are essential for every single person’s mental health. However, when in a relationship (romantic or not) with an individual who struggles with substances, boundaries are necessary. Solid boundaries set guidelines for acceptable behavior, responsibilities, and actions. They protect your mental health, your finances, and other loved ones. And, while you can’t control the individual, you can control how you react to them and this sense of control amidst the chaos is a lifesaver. Here is a good starting point with substance abuse specific boundaries:
No alcohol or drugs allowed in your house.
No covering for or lying for them.
No giving money, for any reason.
No toleration of insults, ridicule, or abuse.
If actively high or drunk, not allowed around you (or minors).
An important reminder – boundaries only work if the other person knows them too. While the above may seem obvious to you, you need to spell them out for them (on paper even).
Acceptance and Forgiveness – One of the hardest things to do is to come to the understanding that you have zero control over a loved one’s addiction. Their addiction and sobriety are 100% their journey and their responsibility. This acceptance isn’t for them; it’s for you. When you can accept this, you can also move towards forgiveness. This is again for you and not them. It’s possible you’ve been lied to, cheated on, stolen from, or even “simply” disappointed or betrayed. Even if you can no longer be with someone in a romantic way due to the hurt, you can still forgive. Resentment will not do you any favors.
Self-care and self-compassion– Find something for you and do it. Self-care is as simple as that. Self-care is not selfish. You can help someone and also focus time on yourself and your own well-being. Perhaps this is setting a goal for something you really want to achieve and focusing on this. Perhaps this even looks like support groups or therapy.
I spent so much time focused on my ex-partner that I didn’t even go to the doctor the entire time we were together. I stopped focusing on my own career to run his business that I hated and that literally broke me.
Self-compassion is similar but different enough. It is about accepting our flaws and imperfections because we all have them. Everyone is human. Do not beat yourself up for your loved one’s struggles with substance abuse or if you reacted less than favorable to something your loved one did. Therapeutic writing is one way to practice self-compassion. You don’t have to be a professional writer. All you need is a pen, paper, and emotions. You can try freeflow writing, writing a [compassionate] letter to yourself, or writing a letter to your loved one [for your eyes only].
Having a loved one who suffers from substance abuse can be stressful, chaotic, and leave you thinking Why me? But it is possible to love someone, help them, and still love and help yourself. Having healthy boundaries and self-care only makes you a better friend or family member even if they claim otherwise.
When to walk away for yourself
You could have the best line-up imaginable – wanting to help someone who actually wants help. That doesn’t mean it will always work out. So, when do you walk away?
The simplest answer – when YOU need to.
There is nothing that says you have to stick around when someone is abusing alcohol or drugs.
If you have the mental capacity to help and the person in your life is not abusing you, I would urge you to be there for them (with healthy boundaries, of course!). However, if doing so is causing serious detriment to your own health, well-being, finances, or you are being abused, I’m telling you right now – it is okay to walk away.
I never did see my ex sober. I eventually said enough is enough and left but only after four years of abuse, financial drain, and on the edge of my own mental breakdown. Prior to leaving, I did start setting boundaries – I started refusing to cover him at his work when he was drunk or fix his screw-ups in order to keep customers happy, for example. You can definitely believe he started noticing when someone was no longer enabling him. I set boundaries and he didn’t respect them. That was when I knew I had to walk away.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional and this is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. I am simply someone with extensive personal experience of being around substance abuse and finding out what works and doesn’t work (although this could be different for different people).