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Helping a Family Member with a Substance Use Disorder


By Rich Leonowitz

Helping a Family Member with a Substance Use Disorder

When someone is struggling with an alcohol or drug problem, they don’t suffer alone.

When someone is struggling with an alcohol or drug problem, they don’t suffer alone. Everyone around them – family members and friends, coworkers and even strangers – feels the negative effects of their addiction. It’s true the person with the addiction is ultimately responsible for helping themselves and working on their recovery. However, they may be in denial about the severity of their addiction. Those closest to the addict are on the front line of their battle and may be in the best position to offer the help they need to get started.

“While drugs and alcohol can affect anyone at any age, many people lose focus and get caught up in an addiction during that time between the teenage years and young adulthood,” says David Moran, director of the Crozer Health Recovery Center. “They get lost and some don’t make it back until their thirties or forties. Family members may be able to provide help in some cases.”

Is My Family Member Addicted?

Moran says that if you’re asking questions about addiction, there’s most likely a problem already. There may be evidence or you’ll have a gut feeling that something isn’t right. As the addiction progresses, the addict will be less able to hide the telltale signs.

“If the time and the money are funny, there’s a good chance that someone may have an addiction to drugs and alcohol,” he says.

The experts often call it a loss of role functionality, which means that the person battling substance abuse is no longer able to keep up with the things they used to do. Forgetting to pick up the kids after school, not paying bills, failing to show up at work, and missing social functions are some of the common ways an addiction manifests itself.

“The truth is, most people don’t care about who’s using drugs or alcohol until it leads to some kind of dysfunction,” Moran says. “When they become dysfunctional, that’s when alarm bells start going off.”

What Family Members Can Do to Help

“It’s easier to prevent a problem with drugs and alcohol than it is to treat an addiction,” says Moran. “Unfortunately, you can find powerful narcotics in virtually every medicine cabinet and there’s a culture of acceptance around teens getting high. It’s easy for addiction to take root.”

Moran advocates for parents spending more time with children, especially during teen years. It could be as simple as having a family dinner at a restaurant, ideally with a “no-phone rule” so everyone has a chance to connect and talk.

If someone in your family is already addicted, part of the recovery process is setting clear boundaries. For instance, if an addict doesn’t have enough money to fix the car they need to get to work, it’s not the family’s responsibility to help. This kind of safety net only enables the substance use disorder and prolongs the time before an addict will seek help.

“Support your family member struggling with addiction, but don’t be their lawyer, banker, and bail bondsman,” says Moran. “Let them grow up and learn how to get out of trouble on their own.”

When recovery happens, the whole family benefits. Parents get their children back, and husbands and wives reconnect with the spouse they fell in love with. People in recovery regain their hopes, dreams and gifts – and become responsible, contributing members of the community. As challenging as addiction can be, it’s important to never lose focus on the fact that recovery can happen.

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