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How do you support someone struggling with addiction, but avoid enabling them? This is a matter that most family members, friends, bosses and co-workers of an addict struggle with.  They ask themselves why is this happening?  Why can’t they just stop? How could anyone be so self-destructive?  Why do they keep hurting themselves and everyone else?  Are they just a bad person or simply insane?  Why isn’t my help and love enough?


Written by Nick Cuneo, President and Founder of Clean Recovery Centers
and Richard D. Froilan-Davila, Ph.D., Director of Recovery Services, Clean Recovery Centers

In fact, addicts are not bad people trying to become good. They are very sick and need to get well. A person deep in addiction is temporarily insane, something that is hard for many to accept. Addiction is not a character flaw or moral issue. It is a disease. A family member or friend has no more ability to change a person in active addiction than they do to cure any other disease. They could even make the situation worse. Unless they are a highly skilled therapist, or someone in recovery that has a strong recovery program, or have successfully worked with someone in recovery, most well intentioned efforts will likely have little affect.


When dealing with an addict, what should you avoid doing? Whenever possible, avoid criticism and name-calling. Addiction feeds on this. It feeds on failure, disappointment, hurt and negativity. Keep in mind that the suffering addict already feels hopelessly lost. As much as everyone is affected by the addict’s behavior, no one is suffering more than the addict though that may be hard for many to believe.

The guilt, remorse, and shame felt by the addict is almost indescribable, and it’s a major reason the addict continues to use. It’s a vicious cycle: 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. As a result they get high again. This destructive pattern continues, getting worse each time. As stated in the AA Big Book, this disease left untreated inevitably results in one or more of these things happening to the addict: they end up in jail; they are institutionalized; they die.


Some may suggest “tough love.” In fact, love is never tough. Love is love and can be expressed in many forms but “tough” is not one of them. While you want to help and support the addict, be very 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 feed their disease – lying, stealing, cheating, or worse are commonplace. Addicts learn to be very convincing in their deception. It is important that you recognize this behavior as a symptom of their disease. Giving in to requests or demands for money, food, drugs, vehicles or more will probably do the addict far more harm than good. Giving in 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 the addict that you love them so much you will not enable them into the grave.


What can you do? The best advice is to learn everything you can about the disease. Groups like Alanon, for example, can be extremely helpful. In addition, there is a lot of content online and any number of books that can be instructive and helpful. Remember, there are many ways to help an addict become clean and sober:

  • Familiarize yourself with different programs and approaches.
  • Try to empower the addict and urge them to seek treatment, whatever that might look like.
  • You may need to seek your own therapy.
  • Be honest with people and don’t minimize the addict’s disease. Try not to rationalize their behavior.

Addiction is nothing to be ashamed of. You would not be ashamed of a relative, spouse, sister, brother or friend, if they had cancer, diabetes, or any other disease.


Be an objective witness to the addict, helping them understand that they are very ill and need help, if possible with the aid and advice of other people in recovery or experienced in recovery. Don’t judge them or make them feel wrong. Try to love the addict unconditionally and focus on what is right with them. In many cases these are good people who have had great careers, are exceptionally talented, and have much to offer society once they are well. Let them know that you are there to support them and help them, but you will not enable them in any way.