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The Do's and Don'ts of Relating to an Addict: What I've Learned

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Cal writes from the personal experience of a living with a loved one who suffers from addiction.

What Is an Addiction?

The ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine) defines an addiction as:

"Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors. Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death."

This article is meant to help families who are suffering because of the addiction of a loved one. Below I will list "do's and don'ts," a little piece of my story, resources, options, and advice.

Mechanism of Drug Addiction in the Brain

Do's and Don'ts

  • DO- If you know what the substance is, research it. It cannot hurt to know the signs, symptoms, and so on. Try to also know the facts about alcoholism and other drug addictions.
  • DON'T- Do not let their addiction consume you. Just because they may be living like an addict does not mean that you have to as well.
  • DO- Stand up for yourself. This is your world too, even though they may feel like they are on top of it. Take your eyes off of the alcoholic/addict and focus them upon yourself. What do you need to learn about yourself? What are your defects of character that need to be addressed? What are your skills, abilities, and interests? What do you need to do in order to be happy and productive?
  • DON'T- Do not yell at them, accuse them, or argue with them. It is common for addicts to provoke arguments to distract everyone from their drug/alcohol use.
  • DO- Let them know that you are there for them even when they feel like they don't need you. Show support in the best way available.
  • DON'T- Do not make threats that you do not intend to carry out, this can cause them to feel more powerful and makes them not respect the limits you set that you actually intend to enforce.
  • DO- Practice detachment, don’t allow yourself to become obsessed with the family member. This is called "release with love." There are times that you simply must let go and let the alcoholic/addict experience the consequences of their drinking and drug use.
  • DON'T- Do not shame them for their addiction. Generally addicts are unhappy people even if they pretend to be. Self-hatred, embarrassment, low self-esteem, and guilt is most likely what they are already feeling. Even if they don't show these emotions, it is likely that they are experiencing them and that could be part of the reason they use.
  • DO- Be patient for the recovery to take place. Remember that it probably took a long time for your family to get into this situation and it will probably take some time for really significant improvements to occur.
  • DON'T- Do not go along with their reasoning. Most of the reasons they will give for using will be excuses and is just a way for them to try to reason/convince themselves that their using is okay.
  • DO- Always tell the truth. Try to stay calm and straightforward but be totally honest. Tell them what is happening in the family but do your best to do so in a non-accusatory, non-blaming, and non-heated way!
  • DON’T- Do not say things such as “if you loved/cared about me you would stop”, these are not helpful and addicts have to quit for themselves or they will not get better.
  • DO- Try to go to Al-anon and open meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. You can learn a lot about your family situation from hearing the experiences other families. You can also learn a great deal about alcoholism/drug addiction from hearing alcoholics/addicts talking honestly about their addictions and their recoveries.
  • DON’T- Don't lie. To the addict about what the drinking/drugging is doing to you, other members of your family and to the alcoholic/addict himself/herself.
  • DO- Remember the needs of other family members during these hard times of addiction. Be there for your children. Explain addiction to them in terms they can understand. Plan family outings with or without the alcoholic/addict and make sure to keep the plans. Learn how to have a good time with the family regardless of whether or not the alcoholic member participates.
  • DON’T- Don't feel guilty if you have to call the police to regain the order in your home. You are not a bad person for wanting your house to be a safe place. You could also be keeping the alcoholic/addict from doing something dangerous to himself/herself as well. Remember that it is the addict's behavior that has resulted in a call for help and not you.
  • DO- If you find yourself feeling anxious, depressed, helpless and hopeless, seek out a mental health professional who, in addition to expertise in mental health, has some understanding of addiction in the family.
  • DON’T- Do not cover up for the alcoholic/addict. Let them be responsible for the consequences of their actions. If you try to always make things right for them, they will not learn the lessons they need to learn in order to grasp the serious nature of their illness. Do not call bosses, employers, acquaintances, etc. in order to make excuses. Learn all that you can about "enabling" and how to avoid this pattern in the family.

    Though there are many different ways to deal with these types of situations and every single family/situation may be different; these are a good place to start. Try sitting down with your family and making your own list of goals/do's/don't/etc, Make a plan and stick to it.


Find an Al-anon Meeting Near You

Al-anon meetings are not for everyone but are definitely worth trying considering most people find them very helpful. Al-anon meetings are meetings for the families of those who are affected by alcoholism, though they can be helpful when dealing with other substances as well. These meetings are for members to share their personal experiences and stories. They invite members to "take what they like and leave the rest". They leave it up to the members to determine what lessons they could apply from the meetings to their own lives.

Find an al-anon meeting near you.


State Resources for Addiction

You can insert your state to find resources near you courtesy of the Addiction Recovery Guide.

Understanding Drug Use and Addiction

Check out this link from the National Institute of Drug Abuse to learn more about the different drugs and the addictions related to them.

ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine)

Visit ASAM to learn more about what a drug addiction is and to find more resources near you.

A Little Piece of My Story...

Coming from a family that is full of addicts of all sorts(most commonly alcoholism), I know first hand how terrifying and completely frustrating it can be. Addiction is a constant battle for both the person with the addiction and everyone around them.

I have always known that addiction and alcoholism "runs" in my family, along with anxiety, severe depression, and other mental health disorders. I have always been told that I am pre-disposed to developing any of those disorders or even all of them.

When I was young I had a fear of alcohol and drugs. I knew what substances like those could do to a family just from what I had been told and had seen from the rest of my (extended) family. My older sister however, did not have this fear. She is eight years and two days older than me.

My sister was born with severe anxiety and depression, I was so young but still remember her always being upset before her addiction even existed. When she was 13 years old she tried meth for the first time. I only know this because being the nosey little sister that I was I went through one of her diaries and read it there.

My parents had there own struggles with addictions and marriage problems so I don't think they realized how fast things spun out of control. A few years go by and my sister progressively acts angrier and more out of control. She dropped out of high school at 15 and ended up a year or so later enrolling in a different school. We had hope for her and thought she would do better there.

While enrolled at this school she was in a serious accident that caused severe head trauma and brain damage. Unlike a cut or a scratch there is only so much of the brain that you can actually see and understand. We had no idea what we could do to help her.

After recovery, rehabilitation, and so on she began doing whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. It was clear that she had an addiction but I am not sure if we knew what the substance was. Looking back now everyone was so distracted with their own issues it's hard to tell if the accident caused her addiction to become worse or not.

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Either way, after the accident everything began going downhill fast. She was constantly in trouble with the police (surprisingly never for drugs), it was clear the friends she chose were bad influences, and just generally not very good people. My sister spent years being used, thrown around, treated terribly, raped, and many other terrible things.

I remember being younger and walking into her disturbingly dirty room and finding bloody needles, pipes, and bags everywhere. These things scared me, but telling my parents, her getting in trouble with the law, and even all the terrible things that were happening to her couldn't and wouldn't make her stop.

Right now if you asked my sister whether we have done anything to help her she would tell you no. She honestly believes that we have never done a thing, even after countless trips to counselors, attempted rehab, and AA meetings. I can't tell if she really doesn't remember all the times my parents, and even me as a teenage have helped her or if she just makes things up when she is under the influence or coming down.

Almost 14 years later my sister is still using meth and possibly heroin. It is a constant cycle. She goes out usually for a few days but sometimes up to a few weeks, we will wonder if she is dead or ever going to come home until finally she calls, sends a text, or shows back up at the house.

She comes home and will usually stay in her room for a few days and only come down when no one is around to eat food. After she has slept off her bender she becomes angry, paranoid, and mean. She will yell at us for asking where she was, she blames us for her problems, and she comes up with these crazy situations.

For instance, she believes that we steal all her personal documents, that her identity is stolen, people are "gang stalking" her, and that people have been in her car or placed drugs on her. Sometimes she even calls the police and tries to tell them these things, usually they can tell she is either mentally unstable or under the influence. She yells, she gets in our faces, sometimes get physical, and will say anything that she knows will get a reaction whether it is to make us angry or hurt. She is manipulative. She knows how to play the game and she is really good at it.

She has never had a real job or paid her own car insurance and she is almost 30 years old. Being older now I push my parents to stop enabling her. I ask them "If someone likes doing drugs and has a home, a car with insurance that is always paid, and everything including gas money handed to them; then why would they stop doing drugs"? Obviously this is easier said they done.

Professionals and interventionists have told us we need to kick her out, we need to let her hit rock bottom because she will not get better if she doesn't want/have to. People from the outside can see how crazy and out of control she acts and how abusive she is towards us.

I think my parents hold on to her because they are afraid that if she hits the bottom there is a possibility she will not come back. I am afraid of that, too, but like my dad says, "She will either get better or she will die," and at the end of the day I would like to be able to say that we tried, that we did everything we could.

I understand my parents, she is their child. Most people don't stay alive this long living the way that she does. She is truly blessed to still be walking the earth. This tells me she has some kind of purpose. When she is using she is not herself, and she is not the person/sister that I love.

There is so much more to my story, and so much more to my sister's story, as well. But the point is that my family and I are living in hell because of her addiction. I have come up with some ways to help myself and things to remember to keep myself sane and want to share them.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2016 Cal Reid


Relatedtoaddict on October 27, 2016:

This has some great information and resources. Thank you!

Harley on October 27, 2016:


Susan on October 27, 2016:

Good article but would be better with more resources

Anon on October 27, 2016:

Thank you for taking the time to write this.

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