How Do You Cope When A Loved One Has An Addiction?

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

One of the toughest problems faced by families today is learning that a husband, wife, son, daughter or another loved one, has an addiction. Whether the addiction is to alcohol or drugs makes little difference to those staring the problem in the face. Upon learning the news of the addiction, the reaction is often shock and dismay.

It is normal for family members to feel crushed, hopeless, frightened and overwhelmed by the problem. Many people react by asking the age old question, “what did I do wrong?” It is also normal to react by appealing to the addicted family member to stop using the drug. (Note: The word “drug” will be used to represent both alcohol and other substances). There is a tendency to appeal to the love and emotions of the drug using individual. Very soon after learning about the problem, many people want to control the person and the situation. They mistakenly believe that they can force the use of substances to end. They think such things as, “If I cry enough, yell enough, control enough, threaten enough, express disappointment enough, threaten divorce enough,” the afflicted individual will stop. In fact, the drug abusing person will probably make all types of promises to satisfy all the demands made by family and friends. Soon after, and with huge disappointment and frustration, everyone discovers that the promises were empty and the addiction either resumed or never ended. For many, this becomes a never ending process of emotional storminess that can affect the health and well being of all involved. Why? The answer is that the addiction simply continues either unabated or with great acceleration.


There is a bitter lesson to be learned by every loved one who ever had to deal with this tragedy. That lesson is that there is nothing anyone can do to stop the addictive process. This creates huge feelings of helplessness. In fact, from beginning to end, coping with someone who has an addiction, leaves everyone totally frustrated and helpless.

So, how does one cope?

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There is no easy answer to the question of “how to cope.” Where a marriage is concerned, there is always the possibility of divorcing the spouse who is abusing substances and sometimes that is the only way out of the situation. However, as many have pointed out to me over the years of working in this area, “you cannot divorce your children, even if they are now adult addicts.” This is true, of course. Also, is it not insensitive and cruel to divorce a spouse who is ill with drug abuse?

Harvard Medical School publishes many useful and informative manuals for public consumption that deal with health and mental health issues. One of them is called “Overcoming Addiction: Paths toward recovery,” a Special Health Report. This and many other manuals can be ordered at:

If you want to read their specific article, titled, “When a loved one has an addiction” it can be found:

The Harvard report on drug abuse points out that loved ones must take good care of themselves first. They compare this idea to the instructions given during air travel and it is that each passenger must first put on their oxygen mask before helping anyone else, whether someone who is a child or an elderly person.

This notion that each and every individual must first care for their self is vitally important in learning to cope with the addiction of another person. If family and friends make themselves ill over the addiction, it will still not put a stop to its steady progress.

This is the reason why it is important for family members to attend either Al anon or Ala teen meetings. Al-anon is for adults coping with a spouse, child, friend, or family member with an addiction and Ala-teen is for young people whose lives have been affected by someone else’s drinking. They are both off shoots of Alcoholics Anonymous. These meetings are free and are comprised of other family members who are coping with the same or similar problem. What is most important is the messages at these meetings are that, 1. The addiction is the fault of no one and, therefore both self blame and blaming of others should stop, and, 2. That family and friends have no control over the addictive process and must finally admit to this painful fact. Meeting places for these organizations can be found on the Internet.

In addition to these types of self help meetings (not instead of) it could be useful for family members to enter psychotherapy. The purpose of the therapy is not to help the addict but the family member who is suffering painful feelings of guilt, anger, depression and confusion. If those aren’t enough reasons to seek help then what else is?

Thanks to some of the Television programs that focus on this problem, such as “Intervention,” many are now aware that it is possible to stage an intervention in which the addicted individual is confronted with their problem and encouraged to immediately enter a drug rehabilitation program. It is best that this be planned, organized and led by an expert professional in the field of addiction. There are too many “dangerous land mines” for any family to undertake an intervention on their own.

Here are some additional suggestions made by the Harvard manual:

If someone you love has a problem with addiction, there are some things you can do to help:

1. Speak up. Express your concerns about your loved one’s problem in a caring way.

2. Take care of yourself. Seek out the people and resources that can support you. Keep in mind that you are not alone, and try to remain hopeful. Practical help is available in your community.

3. Don’t make excuses. Don’t make it easier for your loved one to use his or her object of addiction by lying to protect him or her from the consequences of that use.

4. Don’t blame yourself. Remember that you are not to blame for this problem and you can’t control it. Allow the person with the problem to take responsibility.

5. Be safe. Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations. Find a friend you can call for assistance.

6. Step back. Don’t argue, lecture, accuse, or threaten. Try to remain neutral.

7. Be positive. Remember that addiction is treatable. You may want to learn about what kinds of treatment are available and discuss these options with your loved one.

8. Take action. Consider staging a family meeting or an intervention.

9. Focus your energies. Encourage your friend or family member to get help, but try not to push.

10. Remember that the only person you can change is yourself. Don’t hesitate to use available resources to help yourself.

Comments and questions are, as always, encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

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