Friday, June 21, 2024

How to Cope When Someone You Love is Chronically Troubled or Addicted

Whether you are a senior, a caregiver, or a parent, you may have to deal with a person with an addiction who may be termed “difficult.”  I am not talking about acquaintances or bosses at work.  I’m talking about a person in your family.  While many of us cannot easily change our jobs or our social setting, it is even harder to just remove yourself from a family member – and even harder if you love the person, are responsible for his or her care, or simply want to keep a positive relationship.

And, I’m not talking about occasional personality quirks that rub us the wrong way like the occasional know-it-all or gossip. I'm not talking about a coffee habit either.  I’m talking about really tough people who are drunk all the time, who lie, who steal, who seriously fail to take care of themselves even if they seem like they could, who create chaos, who may be in trouble with the law, who may be harming themselves or threatening harm.   Maybe the person has embarrassing social outbursts associated with dementia, a pain killer addiction, or hoards her belongings to such an extent that she cannot safely live in his or her home.

While this sounds dramatic, many people have at least one person in a family who is just not able to take care of himself in a healthy or reasonable way - or who create frightening, inconvenient, or seriously upsetting repeated crises due to an addiction or mental health problem.

One of the hardest things about coping with this type of problem is our own mixed emotions.  On the one hand, troubled family members can be really aggravating and reckless - triggering emotions like anger - and on the other, we feel empathy for them, we ache to see them well again, and we seem to love them more than they appear to love themselves.  We don’t want to enable unhealthy behaviors or put up with things that are dangerous or disrespectful to us, but we also don’t want to necessarily abandon them or watch them suffer.

How it Impacts Us

Many people have trouble coping when they love someone with a problem like this.  In drug and alcohol treatment settings, for example, the people who love the alcoholic are often showing up almost as sick and chaotic as the alcoholic.  Spouses, parents and children can become overly worried, unable to sleep, overly controlling, dramatic, dishonest, reactionary, hostile, depressed, etc. in response to the drinking problem over time.   Some people in these situations aquire health problems due to the stress of the problem or fail to take good care to eat and sleep well.

“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” – Victor Frankl

What the people around an alcoholic are doing is having a “normal reaction to an abnormal situation.”  It is what it is – difficult!  So, what do we do about it?

Coping Plan:

First – Stop the Action

Ask yourself - even in terrible situations – “what is the worst thing that could happen in the next 24 hours if I totally do not worry about this person?”  Unless something imminent and tragic can be prevented (like someone is actively suicidal or about to drive drunk), taking a break from the situation momentarily can really help put an end to the non-stop worrying.  Just give yourself a period of time – anywhere from 2 to 24 hours to just stop thinking about that person.  In that time, what should you do?

Pray or Meditate Briefly

If you have religious faith – great, you already are used to this.  If not, you could just sit silently and “go within,” focusing on this thought: “I will be patient and wait for guidance (from God or from my higher self or whatever brings you wisdom!).”  Just “let go” and wait for an answer.  Pray for the wisdom to know what you can and cannot control.

"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

The number one focus when you start to feel crazy, overly worried, unable to sleep or eat, stressed, or otherwise negative in response to someone else’s choices or behavior, is yourself.  So, step back and think through what you do and do not have control over.  We never can control other people’s decisions or actions or words.  We just cannot do it.  Try as we might to influence, cajole, persuade, control – at the end of the day, people will do what they will do.Once you let go – you need to then do something else – one more thing you CAN control.  So, what is the only thing you can control?  You guessed it – YOURSELF.

Focus on Yourself

Yes, it seems weird and out of place.  Your grown sister may be about to lose her third apartment this year and she may be hinting she wants to come live with you - again.  Maybe you are stressed out completely by being in this crazy position.  But, in this “break” time you have set aside, don’t think about that for a moment.  As unnatural as it may be, think about what YOU need in this moment.  Do you need a walk and fresh air?  Some food?  A call to a good friend?  A long soak in a bath tub?  Maybe you are behind in your own affairs from worrying about her – how about you tackle some of your high priority items on that “to do” list!  Can’t think straight? – pick a low mental task like weeding your garden!

Focus on taking care of yourself for a moment while you wait for inner guidance.  This does three things. First, you are taking control of something you CAN actually control! Two, it quiets the circular, stressed thinking long enough for your quiet wisdom to get a chance to "speak."  At last, you end up strengthening yourself or improving your situation - even if only in a small way.

Now, will this solve your problem of what to actually do or say when 24 hours are up and your sister shows up with her suitcase?  No way.  Will you be in a better place to make a healthy decision for yourself that respects your needs along with having compassion for your difficult relative?  Yes, you will be in a much better place to make a good decision and have compassion. 

What Makes for a Good Decision?

It is a good decision when you are only deciding for yourself and not trying to control all outcomes for someone else.  Remember, we have been over that - you have no control over outcomes for another adult!  So, for example, don’t let your sister come live with you in the hope that by doing so, you will have an opportunity to knock some sense into her head and change her life.  If you let her come to stay, only let it be because you feel like that makes sense for you and your family EVEN IF she decides to drink, gamble or whatever she was doing that created the crisis as soon as she leaves your home.  If it is not good for you and your family, chances are, it will not be good for her in the long run either.  Another rule of thumb in many of our relationships - even when there is not a serious problem - is "never do anything for someone that they can and should be doing for themselves."  Another thing to bear in mind is setting reasonable limits so that you are not putting your own needs behind the addiction.


Caregiver Self-Care

Feeling Overwhelmed

Being Assertive

Why Not Try to Change Them?

Well, it is honestly like trying to get a cat to swim in a lake.  It won’t happen just because you want it to happen.  And even it were possible for you to get a cat to swim in a lake, think for a moment the struggle that would be involved for you!  When a person is addicted or making chronically bad choices, it is not because they woke up one day and said “I think living like this is a great idea.”  Even if they deny it or are too sick to remember it, deep inside they know what is going on and they would stop it if they had the strength to do so today.  Offering your apartment and lecturing them to change will not give them the inner strength or magic inspiration to get better.  Unless you can help without ANY expectation that they will change for you, you may as well take your cat to the lake.

One difficulty with chronic, serious mental disorders and addiction is that it sometimes appears like a person can control daily choices.  But, until they get professional help, it is often not that easy to do alone.  So, while it looks like the alcoholic is making a “bad” choice to drink, in reality, it is no more a choice than willing yourself to not have a broken leg.  These diseases take over, impact the brain, and make it very hard to fix with just will power.

You can have the tough conversation, share your concerns, and provide hope and encouragement that things can get better with proper treatment.  Offer your compassion and your respect for that person to have the dignity to make his or her own choice about whether to get help for the disease – even if it is hard to watch or bear. 


That pain of watching someone suffer is why we often "enable." Enabling, though, is a type of "help" that actually makes it easier for the person to stay sick.  On the surface, it seems like the kind or compassionate thing to do, but done repeatedly, it serves to just make the disease easier to bear for them.  It does nothing to cure it and will not likely motivate change.  But, these diseases are baffling and hard to navigate.

The illusion we have that we can control things is part of the complexity.  For example, if your adult child has an expensive drug problem, you may be tempted to give him money for the drugs so he won’t steal to get the money.  But, now, if you do that, you are part of his problem and his problem will not go away because you are helping him keep his problem!   The temptation is understandable.  You think to yourself that you don’t want him to have a more permanent legal problem and maybe he’ll “come to his senses” and stop the drugs.  But, again, the reality is, he will stop using drugs only when the pain of continuing his addiction outweighs the pain of breaking it.  No matter how much he loves you or you love him – no matter what you have sacrificed and done for him – no matter how senseless it appears, how smart he is or how much potential he has – it is so painful to break some types of patterns, addictions, habits, or mental health problems. Recovery is rarely done without serious professional help.

There are so many examples here – but hopefully you get the idea.  We can’t control the addiction and we should be careful when we decide to “ease” or prevent the inevitable or natural consequences for a person.  The distinction between real help and “enabling” someone to stay sick is usually not clear-cut or easy.  That is why it is so important for you to get support and help from others if you are in this situation.

Getting Help

It is tempting to put information in here about how to get help for someone else - but if you are facing this, you need to first get support for yourself.  For people who love someone with these types of problems, there are excellent resources online and in most communities.  “Al-anon” is for the family and friends of alcoholics.  Other similar free support groups like “Co-dependents Anonymous” are often available under “family support” or through the specific organizations treating people with certain conditions.  Look in your newspaper, talk to your church, or call your local United Way for support in your area.  Search family support topics online for more information about your specific concern. 

Taking good care of yourself may seem selfish, but in the end, it is all you can really do. And the more support you get for yourself, the more capable you will be to be truly helpful and compassionate to someone you love when or if they are ready to get real help.

See Also:

Elderly Depression

Elderly Abuse

Assessing Whether Someone Can Take Care of Herself

Alternatives to Pain Medication

Care Calls for Homebound Family Members - Safety and Peace of Mind




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