Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Talk the Talk: Dealing With a Family Member’s Addiction

You may have to say the words out loud before change can begin.

This post is in response to
Parenting an Adult Addict: What Should you Say?

Most of us believe that our families-of-origin were a little dysfunctional; it seems that there really is no true “normal” for how a family should look or behave, beyond “more normal” than your own. The only true measure of a family’s functionality, though, usually is revealed once the children grow up and begin having families of their own.

One truth is certain, however. A family in which an alcoholic, or other addict, is actively engaged in chasing the substance of choice almost always fall into the authentically dysfunctional category no matter what the measurement tool might be.

Addictions are like illicit love affairs. A person often knows that what she is doing is wrong. She may try to hide the evidence of her trysts – receipts from the liquor store instead of the motel; empty bottles instead of sexy lingerie and new perfume; or dilated eyes and flushed cheeks instead of smudged lipstick or love bites on her neck.

Just like the illicit love affair, active addictions take on a life of their own. Addicts find reasons to get out of the house, to arrange time on their own, and become practiced and sometimes not-so-skilled liars who make up excuses and denials, even if the evidence is every bit as clear as finding them naked in the bed with a lover.

When Does the Addict decide it’s Time to Seek Help?

There is no timeline that is universally applicable to any addict’s recovery. Some addicts seek help when their significant other threatens to leave or actually chooses to leave. Some addicts seek help when their parents kick them out. Some addicts seek help when they are too drunk to stay conscious during their children’s recital or soccer game. Some addicts get help when they are fired from their jobs. Some addicts get help when they realize they can either afford food or their substance-of-choice and they realize that it is no longer a toss-up on what their choice will be. Some addicts get help when they end up comatose on the sidewalk and wake up in a hospital bed and no clue how they ended up there. Some addicts get help when they wake up in a crashed car on the side of the road and have no idea how they got there and no idea how they lived. Some addicts get help when they wake up in a jail cell and don’t have a single family member who cares enough to bail them out.

Some addicts never decide that it’s time to seek help and choose to continue their illicit love affair unabated regardless of the damage they are doing to the people who truly care about their futures.

When Does the Addict’s Close Friends and Family Decide it’s time to Seek Help?

Sometimes, admitting that “he has a drinking/drugging problem” is almost inconceivable to a family. If you grew up in an alcoholic household, you might have learned early that family values include silence and hiding problems. Addiction is not just the problem of the addict, it’s the problem of anyone who cares about the addict. When it’s a parent or a sibling, some families go out of their way to never mention “the problem” aloud. For most folks, however, it is the “silent treatment” that does a great deal of damage. Not only is the problem being “minimalized” for the addict, not mentioning that there actually IS a significant problem basically invalidates the suffering and heartache that are the result of the problem for all of the innocent bystanders who surround the addict.

Walking the Walk? Talking the Talk?

Too often, the behavior of addicts leads everyone around them to walk on eggshells. Either people are afraid to incur the anger of the addict or afraid to risk sending them into another bender. However, until the problem is actually verbalized, out loud, to the addict, the “friends and family secret” will not lose its power to keep the friends and friends network down.

As a counselor, I know that until a person acknowledges he has a problem, there’s no way to help him. I also have been asked by more than one client about “when” a particular behavior is actually a problem. A behavior’s not a problem, I acknowledge, until it is viewed as a problem. By a client or by a family member. Once substance abuse has been named out loud, it is clearly a "problem" of some degree that now warrants attention. By talking the talk, and calling a “problem” an addiction, the problem behavior can finally be addressed.

Save Yourself – No One has the Power to Save an Addict except the Addict

Talking the talk and intervening in an addict’s life are not easy to do – and these action don't always work straightaway. Addictions are powerful beasts that are only slayed once an addict decides that it is time to fight back. Unfortunately, not every addict will make that decision on the timeline you prefer. However, when you recognize that the illicit relationship between addict and substance-of-choice is no longer “okay” with you, there is nothing to stop you from seeking help for yourself.

Breaking the silence and acknowledging the damage being wreaked by an addict is not always easy. Many people feel that they have failed to help enough, be good enough, be kind enough, be “enough” enough. Addicting substances are cruel and jealous rivals for an addict’s attention. Letting go of misplaced responsibility for an addict’s addiction is as important as letting go of the notion that victims of abuse “caused” their batterers to abuse them. The only person you can ever change is yourself. Some consider this a sad truth, but it takes us off the hook for self-blame for the foolish choices or addiction-driven behaviors of others.

Share your experiences with parenting an adult addict

Please click on the link below to participate in a new survey that is seeking to understand the experiences of parents of adult addicts. Share your thoughts here.

More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today