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When Someone You Love Becomes an Addict

3 ways to care for yourself and find help.

Addiction is a disease like no other. It doesn’t appear on x-rays, it isn’t an injury or allergy with a simple cure. It’s a phantom that travels through families, crossing decades, and suddenly reappearing in new generations. It destroys marriages and devastates relationships. Today, with the outbreak of prescription drug abuse, it can be even harder to recognize signs of addiction. (For information about how best to dispose of prescription drugs visit National Prescription Drug Take Back Day)

Whether the person is a sibling, parent, friend, son or daughter, when someone you love is destroying themselves with substances, your world falls apart. You’d willingly sacrifice all you have for that person to be right again.

Desperate for relief, you may lie to yourself:

  • “She’s doing better.”
  • “I can trust him again.”
  • “I should be optimistic.”

Maybe you try to talk sense to him or her, but your efforts to help are met with callous anger.

  • “I’m fine. Leave me alone.”
  • “Stop worrying! You’re making me feel worse.”
  • “Why don’t you believe me?”

Perhaps the person you love stands before you, wild-eyed, body trembling for a fix. In such unforgettable moments, you feel your heartbreak.

Sooner or later, hopelessness wears you down. Everything is tested: your faith, your relationships, even trust in yourself. You may wander down the path of self-blame:

  • This is my fault.
  • I should have seen the signs.
  • What was I thinking?

There are no easy answers when dealing with addiction. You want your love to be enough -- unfortunately, it isn’t. But there are actions you can take to strengthen yourself and weaken its spell.

Care for the Caregiver

When you’re tending to someone in crisis, it’s a rare friend who asks, “How are you doing?” The addicted person takes up so much time and space, it's common to neglect yourself. Here’s how best to help yourself and those you love.

1. Seek Out Support

Find a group, hire a professional, attend a meeting. The internet is full of free support programs for families and individuals. Addiction is one of the most complex and complicated diagnoses. Talking out your feelings and sharing your experience will help more than you think. If you’re hesitant, bring a friend. There is nothing more powerful than being in the presence of people who share your experience and came out whole again. Bottom line: Don’t go it alone.

2. Practice Self Care

Stress can have a profoundly negative affect your physical and emotional health. That’s why it’s vital you take care of yourself even more. Long walks are great for clearing your head. Surround yourself with nurturing friends. See a movie, visit a gallery, go to a concert. Such tasks may seem mundane, but they will raise your spirits and give your mind the break from stress it desperately needs.

3. Pace Yourself

Sometimes no matter what you do, someone just won’t listen. Another person’s will is ultimately beyond our power. Until they are ready to get help or “hit bottom,” do your best to stay firm. You’re not giving up on them, you’re remaining a supportive presence. Hopefully, the moment will arrive they turn to you for help and accept your support. Remember: recovery is a long journey that can't be rushed.

A New Beginning: A Story

A family reunited with their daughter who had nearly died of an overdose. She had spent two months in a girls’ wilderness program deep in the mountains of Georgia, so far from the urban life she knew. When they last saw her, her thin body was marked with cuts, her face bruised from hitting herself.

Sending her there, without a doubt, was the most excruciating decision they ever made as parents. She said she would never to speak to them again—ever.

Visiting day arrives. The mother and father drive their rented car up the gravel road and park. They look like frightened children, out of place in the overgrown forest, unsure what to expect.

Seconds later their daughter is running breathlessly down a hill, toward them, waving; hair wild and unkempt, clothes stained with the muck of the woods.

“Mom! Dad!”

They almost don’t recognize her. How long had it been since she called them that?

They fall into each other’s arms, wrapped in a single, timeless embrace, their bodies shaking with emotion. In the distance, the addiction counselors, like mountain angels, watch, tend to an open fire and exchange smiles. No one notices the light rain trickling through the pines.

After a long while, their daughter attempts to speak, her face wet with tears, words caught in her throat, then finally she whispers:

“Thank you...for...not giving up...on me.”

And in a single magical moment—everything changed. Still, there was much work to be done, but a cycle had been broken. Hope returned and was gaining momentum. True healing could now begin.

What You Can Do Today

Caring for someone who is addicted is a test of love. Seek support. Reach out to friends, talk to professionals, re-engage your spiritual practice or start one. There's an enormous community of people in recovery, everyday heroes, waiting to help you. Such actions will give you hope, even when your situation feels hopeless.

Dedicated to the outstanding therapists who save teenagers from addiction every day at The Center for Living in New York City.