The Need to Rescue: Important Messages for Family Members or Friends of Addicts

Photo credit Alan Cleaver

Addiction is a powerful thing.

I’ve had clients who talk about their own intergenerational alcoholism like it was another family member.

I’ve seen babies taken from their mothers at the time of birth because they were born addicted to crack cocaine.

I’ve seen couples in tears because the husband’s addiction to pornography keeps them from being intimate.

I’ve seen an individual male client tell me with a gleam in his eye that “this month, my wife is gonna win the jackpot over at the casino.”   He shares this hope in session right after he tells me that he can’t pay their bill because they’re probably going to file for bankruptcy “this week.”

I’ve seen enough.  But there’s always more.  And attached to the more, will always be the family and friends who love those whose addictions are out of control and rocking the world around them.

This post is for those around the addicts whose worlds are being rocked.  I’m talking to you today because I’ve seen how incredibly hard it is to be the loved one of someone who is addicted to…something.

I know that you respond the way you do because you love them.  And, I know it’s hard to see but many times your responses will only keep the addiction going longer, or delay your loved one getting better.  And, I know that sometimes the most well intended actions on your part make perfect sense to you because you are so worried about the welfare of the person who isn’t themselves…who is addicted to something and it is ruining their lives.

I know this.  And, I’m writing to you anyway.  I’m writing to you as an outside person to try and offer you a resource when you’re feeling like you are at your wits’ end and you feel like you can’t take your world being rocked any longer.  Here are a few tips…I hope you take them as I intend them – with respect and with genuine regard for you and your addicted loved one.

  • If certain people can’t be present at an intervention, do it anyway.  This seems like a “no brainer,” but so many times I’ve seen people put off asking their loved ones to get help because “Uncle Bob” or “their best friend” can’t be there.  They may never be able to be there.  And, YOU may not feel equipped to say or handle the situation very well.  But I promise you…the longer you put it off, the easier it will be to talk yourself out of the entire prospect. And then, the addiction will only continue until things get potentially “even worse” than you thought…when you never thought things could get worse.
  • Stop overfunctioning for the addict.  Stop it.  I really mean it.    So many times friends or loved ones “are just going to check the cabinet to see if there’s alcohol in the house,” or “innocently bring up the fact that they saw an empty pill bottle in the trash to see how they react,” or “just casually sneak a peak at the computer…or the diary…or a personal planner…because it’s for their own good.”  So many times word vomit comes out of friends or loved one’s mouths and it’s incredibly uncool.  Regardless of being “well intentioned” what it is really doing is helping relieve YOUR anxiety.  YOUR job is to take care of relieving your own anxiety about the addict’s problems AWAY from the addict.  Talk to a priest, a counselor, a support person…but DON’T nag, “act as an accountability partner,” or play any fake role in your addict’s life that really acts as a disguise for you checking up on them.  THEY need to get better, and every time you devise a clever way to check on them, it’s apparent to the addict and will only harm your relationship more.
  • Stop playing judge.  Many times, a close person or family member will “hold out” from an addict some sort of resource.  For example, let’s say the addict owns land or stock or some other kind of asset.  Many times, family members will accept a “bargain” with an addict and say, “Okay – we’re going to keep this stuff from you until you get better.  When you prove you can handle it, we’ll give it back.”  This is the worst kind of blackmail.  It puts you right back in the overfunctioner’s role.  Here’s what you need to do…FIND AN OUTSIDE PERSON – an NEUTRAL person to take this role.  If you have to, suggest the addict hire an executor or advisor for their valuables to help them manage their estate or assets.  A “guilt cycle” only gets worse when you’ve accepted the role of caretaker or “judge” over an addict’s belongings and then you have to decide when or if it’s okay to give them back.  That shouldn’t be your job, and it’s not fair for you OR the addict.
  • An addict is not “sick.”  Many times, a family begins to treat an addict like they are an invalid, or they need sympathy, or like they are incapable of doing things.  I’ve seen family members walking together, an addict approaches a door, and the family member says to them, “Oh, let me get the door for you.”  If you want to know how to act around an addict, ASK them.  Tell them you’re not sure what to say or do, and tell them you feel a little awkward.  The addict will appreciate your honesty and probably feel relief for the invitation to give some guidance to you.  Don’t assume an addict is having a rough day or a good day (just because they got clean), just ask them, “How are you doing.”  They can decide how to answer that question.
  • Please treat yourself gently.  Many times, when an addict gets better their family members are not sure what to do with themselves.  What you want to make sure and do is examine the role you played in whatever led up to the addiction, find a way to forgive yourself for things you might not have even known you were doing, get support to find your new role and new place in life, and CELEBRATE that you aren’t dealing with the crushing responsibilities of a dear one who is addicted to something.  It’s weird sometimes…seeing yourself in a new light…with new possibilities…with new hopes and dreams.  Please treat yourself gently and realize that sometimes losing your role of responsibility in an addict’s life can be a true and depressing loss.

Give yourself that grace, and then give yourself the freedom to find your new life, your new way, and your brand new relationship with your NO-LONGER addicted loved one.

Wow. That will be a really amazing day.  YOU are amazing; you can do this.  I know you can.  So…go!  Good luck!


Find me at the Red Dirt Chronicles

Best, Red Dirt Kelly




3 thoughts on “The Need to Rescue: Important Messages for Family Members or Friends of Addicts”

  1. First-time reader here, and your post really resonated with me, as I take an AA meeting into a federal prison once a week. The inmates would offer the same advice you have. Eventually. =)

    Al-Anon absolutely can save the life of the family member/loved one, whether the addict gets clean and sober or not. My personal opinion is that we ALL qualify for Al-Anon!

    I hope someone who needs this reads it and then follows through. S/he will not only be helping him or herself, but also the addict in his/her life. (Trying to be politically and grammatically correct is so hard sometimes.)

    1. Hi, Debbi –

      I read your post about the female prisoners and their freedoms. I really loved what you said and am glad you wrote it. Thanks for the feedback about the post. You’re right, people do indeed take various journeys to finally “get there” and sometimes they certainly can’t see the end at all. But Al-Anon is indeed a WONDERFUL resource. The problems I generally see is that a family might have one bad experience with Al-Anon, or Narc-Anon or other family group and immediately say, “Okay – I tried. It wasn’t for me.” It takes time to find the right group and the right style, but it can be so helpful!

      1. I’ve had similar experiences with acquaintances or family members who tried one Al-Anon meeting and gave up. In fact, we’re going through that with someone right now. Sadly, some people need to be right more than they need to be happy.

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