What can family members do to help loved ones struggling with addiction?
This is one of life’s tough questions. One my own family members have had to answer, like searching for a mustard seed in the wilderness.
This question can also lead to more questions:
How long has your family member been struggling?
Have they been to treatment?
Are their children with them or in foster care—or perhaps your care?
Have you lost a loved one to the struggle?
As an author and recovery advocate, this is one of the most asked questions I receive when doing interviews and other events. Why? Well, I’d venture to guess it is because there are more people struggling with addiction and substance use disorders than ever before. Research shows that addiction and substance abuse impacts nearly half of American families. Since 2020, the rates for women’s substance use, including alcohol use, is also on the rise, and with it, the consequences and symptoms of a deadly disease.
Just look down your block or neighborhood or church pews or down the hallway. There is a chorus of quiet ache that echoes behind closed doors and generations are impacted. Today, drugs like Fentanyl, have only heightened the stakes.
I’m also a woman in addiction recovery. For me, this means that I haven’t used alcohol or other drugs (my numbing agents of choice) for over a decade.
Sobriety is a gift and one that surprised me in my late twenties with a new life of freedom. Recovery is walking in the truth of what the Apostle Paul says: we are new creations, the old has gone and the new has come.¹ But I say all of this recognizing that for many family members, hearing about the reality of recovery is bittersweet.
Why do some people make it out alive and not only live, but thrive, while others stay stuck in a revolving door of treatment programs and counselors, and arrests? And sometimes death.
I wish I had simple answers for you. Or maybe a formula. Like, if you did X or Y, then your loved one will get better and stay that way. But here is the reality: addiction is like cancer. Sometimes the treatments work. Sometimes family and friends and meal trains and prayers become living water that cools and heals a scorched life. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes death comes knocking long before the person is gone.
So, what can we do and how can we remain hopeful?
5 Ways You Can Help Loved Ones Struggling with Addiction
I’d like to suggest a couple of things from my experience as a person in recovery and a professional who has worked in the field for nearly two decades. Despite the struggle, families can play an active and important role in supporting loved ones with addiction.
1. Check your stigmatizing attitude at the door.
In graduate school, I had an internship at a veterans treatment center. The level of trauma and pain, both emotional and physical, was overwhelming. This particular center had many “repeat offenders” as they were labeled. One counselor, in particular, blasted several of the vets, irritated that they just couldn’t quit. Even someone with letters behind their name didn’t grasp the truth that recurrence of use (or relapse) can be a part of the cycle. Just like a person with diabetes may continue to struggle with eating sweets.
I ended up going to my supervisor because the labeling was destructive. I felt it in my heart, but I also knew it to be true from what researchers say: When someone has hope and belief for another person to get well, they are more likely to get well. Even if all signs point to the opposite, we can speak and pray life into our loved one’s journey.
This is the No. 1 guidance I have for family members, especially parents of teens or tweens: Listen to what your family member is saying—and not just the words they might be hurling at you.
When I was fourteen and my grades plummeted, my friends changed, and I started lying and sneaking out, I was labeled “bad.” What would have helped me is if someone asked “What happened?” and listened to my non-verbal cues. People struggling with addiction often communicate that something is wrong long before the alcohol or drugs dig their talons in.
3. Learn in community with others.
There are countless resources out there today and a quick Google search will reveal millions of options. It can be overwhelming to know what to look at, whom to trust, and how to help your loved one. I recommend learning in community with others.
Along with resources online that will point you to other resources in your community, I suggest finding a parent or family group to connect with other parents or family members who are struggling with similar concerns. Oftentimes, family members can be the most helpful by sharing their own personal experiences of what is working and what isn’t. In the same way, many states have family peer support specialists and other types of recovery coaches that can help you navigate the process. There are also grief groups and communities for those who have lost loved ones.
One of the most challenging areas for family members who have been impacted by a loved one’s addiction is boundary setting. Often termed “tough love,” there are proponents of the method of cutting loved ones off financially, emotionally, and verbally. Asserting, unless they do X (get sober/quit using), we will not have contact, etc. Now, I am not placing any judgment here, but simply want to state from my own experience that withholding love and grace for me was destructive and led to more shame and guilt.
Thankfully, I did have some family help financially (buying groceries, for example, and not giving me cash) or answering my calls even when I couldn’t be honest about my addiction. I’m grateful that some of my family set healthy boundaries and also never stopped showing up for me. Whether we struggle with addiction or not, everyone can relate to the truth that love heals.
5. Don’t give up hope.
Hope is powerful. I’ve had women who have hoped and believed in my potential and dignity as a woman long before I did. For years, it was their belief in me that showed me the truth of how God sees me. When we hope for another, we are saying this: You are loved.
When the root of addiction is trauma for many of us and the disease one of shame and isolation, it is no surprise that God can work through the hope of others. We need to counter the lies that so many of us in addiction believe that we are not deserving of love, that we are bad or dirty or shameful. When we start to learn the truth of whom we are—loved by God unconditionally—and what we can receive—grace and love and salvation—something incredible and indeed new can happen. We always have reason to hope.
A Prayer for the Family Member Impacted by Addiction
For the family member impacted by a loved one’s addiction: We pray at this moment that you open our eyes to see the hope and possibility of recovery. Help us to recognize the lies of the world that say all is lost and our loved one will never get better. The truth is that you long to bring health and healing and wholeness to your children.
Help us all break free from the lie that tells us to withhold love, to turn our back, to look the other way. Give us the grace to have compassion, even if we feel hurt and betrayed. Set healthy, but loving boundaries that don’t shut out but welcome in. Help us to see our loved ones as you see them: A child hurting, a new creation waiting to be born. Amen.
Resources for Loved Ones:
For Families Coping with Mental and Substance Use Disorders: https://www.samhsa.gov/families
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline: https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline
Listen to Caroline’s own recovery story on this episode of This Grit and Grace Life: Addiction Does Not Define You: A Recovery Story with Caroline Beidler – 194