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This is a question that most family members of an addict struggle with greatly. They often feel helpless and hopeless. Over and over, they ask themselves, “Why is this  happening? Why doesn’t our loved one just stop? How could anyone be so self destructive? Why do they keep hurting themselves and everyone else?”

By Charles Robinson, Clinical Director, Clean Recovery Centers 

One thing that helps family members is when they realize and understand that the addict is not a bad person trying to become good. The addict is a very sick person who needs to get well. In fact, a person deep in their addiction is temporarily insane. This is hard for loving family members to accept. Addiction is not a character flaw or moral issue. It is a disease.

A family member has no more ability to change a person in active addiction than they do to cure any other disease. In fact, they could make the situation worse. Unless they are a highly skilled therapist, or someone in recovery with a strong recovery program, or have successfully working with someone in recovery, most well-intentioned efforts by the family will likely have little affect.

What should the family avoid doing? I know it can be difficult, but it is best if you can avoid criticizing and name calling whenever possible. Addiction feeds on these things. It feeds on failure, disappointment, hurt and negativity. The suffering addict already feels hopelessly lost. Remember, as much as everyone else is affected and suffering by the addiction, no one is suffering more than the addict though that may be hard for the family to believe.

The guilt, remorse, and shame felt by the addict is almost indescribable. It is a major reason why addicts continue to use. They are unable to deal with the pain of what they have done – they get high to numb it out, more destructive behavior follows, the addict feels even more guilt, remorse, and shame, and they get high again. It’s a vicious cycle that continues to get worse each time. This disease, left untreated, inevitably results in an ever-growing number of hospitalizations, detoxes, rehab centers, incarcerations, and death.

Often a family may think they need to exercise “tough love.” Love is never tough. Love is love. Love can be expressed in many forms but “tough” is not one of them. While you want to help and support your suffering family member, be careful to avoid enabling them. This does not mean tough love. It means you love the addict enough not to enable them into further sickness or even death.

A person in the depths of addiction may become extremely manipulative. This is necessary to continue to feed the disease – lying, stealing, cheating or worse are commonplace. The addict learns to become extremely convincing in his or her deception, especially towards the family. It is very important that you recognize this behavior as a symptom of their disease.

Giving in to requests or demands for money, food, drugs or vehicles for example will likely do the suffering addict far more harm than good. Giving in to these demands is not love though you may think it is. That said, not giving into these demands is not “tough love.” It is a true expression of love. You are willing to demonstrate to your suffering family member that you love them so much you will not enable them into the grave.

What can the family do? The best advice is to learn everything you can about the disease. Groups like Al-Anon can be extremely helpful. There is also a great deal of content online and many books that can be extremely helpful. There are many pathways to becoming clean and sober. It is important that you familiarize yourself with different programs and approaches. Try to empower your suffering loved one and urge him or her to seek treatment, whatever that might look like. Family members may need to seek their own therapy.

Be honest with people and don’t minimize your loved one’s addiction. Try not to rationalize the behavior. Addiction is nothing to be ashamed of. The family would not be ashamed of any relative, such as a spouse, sister or brother, if they had cancer, diabetes, or any other disease.

Be an objective witness to the addicted family member by helping them understand that they are very ill and need help (if possible with the aid/advice of other people in recovery or experienced in recovery), without making them wrong or judging them. Try to love them unconditionally and focus on what is right with them. In many cases these are very good people who have had great careers, are exceptionally talented, and have much to offer society once they are well. Make sure they understand that the family is there to support them and help them, but no family member will do anything to enable their addiction