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Helping an Alcoholic or Addict in the Family

Updated on September 8, 2021
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The author worked as a support worker for homeless alcoholics & addicts on the streets of Belfast for 7 years.

Trying to help an addict or alcoholic, in the family, can be frustrating, heartbreaking and unrewarding. For the purposes of this article, generally, when I use the term 'addict', this includes the Alcoholic, as they are all subject to substance addictions, only one is generally legal to buy or possess. When making sweeping differences between Alcoholism and Addiction, there is also the opportunity for some to hide behind substance snobbery, which is another avenue of enablement for the person in denial. The most important step, for the family wishing to help the addict, is to cease enabling the addiction. A family covering up for an addict and their behaviour will only keep him, or her, firmly in denial and comfortable in their addiction. This, in turn, enables them to avoid taking responsibility for their own addictive and often self-destructive behaviour.

Thankfully, there are family-centred addiction self-help groups, such as Al-Anon, Nar-Anon and Alateen. Their programme is applicable to the families of addicts, suffering from a wide range of addictions, both substance and behavioural based. Central to Al-Anon type programmes is that the family of the addict must let their family member take responsibility for their own addiction. In many cases family members will have become, through the best of intentions, co-dependent on the addict, invariably thinking that they are the only person who can help the addict and that they can end up just as, or even every bit, as emotionally ill as the addict.

Al-Anon type groups rely heavily, on what they call their Three C's, meaning that the family of the addict learns the key truths about addiction. The Three C's essentially are:

  • The family did not Cause the addiction;
  • The family can not Control the addiction;
  • The family can not Cure the addiction!

Familiarising oneself, with the nature of addiction and the programs of recovery available for the addict, will allow family members to assist the family member with addiction issues, in promptly seeking help, when that often very narrow window of opportunity arises. In many cases, this will come after that golden moment of clarity for the addict, which can often come when the addict has reached a personal low. The relative of an addict can effectively become the signpost, that directs a loved one into taking the first faltering steps towards recovery.

Being knowledgeable about the times and places of local Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), or other twelve-step groups nearby, or different types of self-help groups for addicts will empower the family when the window of opportunity arises. Discussing the problem with the family's doctor, any kind of relevant Healthcare professional or counselor will help the family familiarise themselves with the problems of addiction, in the short term, and in turn, allow family members to help the addict in the long term.

Help is available - Free of Charge

Numerous organizations provide free information online, about addiction and the family, such as the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence; Narcotics Anonymous; Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon etc to name but a few. Addiction is rightfully classed as a serious disease by the World Health Organisation (WHO), an august body indeed.

Sadly, for the family of the person with addiction issues, there are no quick fixes or fast-tracks to recovery, for the loved one suffering from addiction problems. Until such times as the family member with addiction issues, reaches the point of genuinely seeking help and accepts that they have a problem, the family's first priority, is that they do not enable the addict or become hopelessly co-dependent.

It is often a frustrating, lonely and traumatic time for the family when they feel powerless to stop a loved one embarking on a seemingly, clearly visible, self-destructive trajectory. Ill-timed family 'interventions' can invariably be counterproductive. Generally speaking, the best course of action, for the family is to ensure that their family member with addiction issues, takes responsibility for their own addictive behaviour and the inevitable consequences of the addict out of control.

It is a well-used cliche, but it is equally true, that rarely does anyone seek help with addiction issues unless they actually want it for themselves. Addiction is a selfish disease, very much rooted in a human Ego out of control, combined with a lack of self-esteem. In the meantime, family members should endeavour to limit the consequences for themselves as a result of their family member's addiction issues and behaviour. In many cases, hospitalisation is needed, but rarely affordable by the working class person. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and other twelve-step groups, based on abstinence, should be the first port of call for the family member suffering from addiction unless their health is so poor that immediate hospitalisation is a necessity. NA, AA, CA are free and have helped millions of people around the world. When researching this article, I came across this prayer, which I thought was apt and which may give hope to at least one person, making this exercise entirely worthwhile:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference."

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 Liam A Ryan


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