When Someone You Love Is an Addict

Addiction has many faces and each situation is as unique as the addicted individuals themselves. With fewer than 19% of substance users actually getting treatment, there are millions of friends and family members out there who deal with a loved one’s addiction and everything that entails.

If someone you love is dealing with an addiction, these stories and insights from real family members of addicts may resonate with you. Perhaps they’ll also remind you of two major realities of addiction: You are not responsible for your loved one’s behavior and you are not alone.

Stephanie’s Story

Stephanie first became aware of her mother’s drinking when she was in her teens. “I noticed she always had wine in her car under the seat or in her purse at the grocery store,” she says. “I thought it was weird, but I thought it was what people must do.”

As Stephanie got older, it became clear that her mother had an alcohol addiction, which was a major influence in Stephanie’s decision to get sober. “I talked to (my mom) about getting help, but she would just lie and say she didn’t even drink. Complete denial.” Lying about her life and what she was doing became routine for her mom as Stephanie struggled to get her to see how serious her drinking was. “You couldn’t get a straight answer out of her about anything. She even once told me she had lupus, which I think was just to blame the red spots she was getting on her arms from drinking,” says Stephanie.

Stephanie’s mom just passed away this winter at the age of 55 from alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver, which caused her liver to stop working and her kidneys to eventually shut down too.

Her advice: “One of the things they say in AA is that alcoholism is ‘cunning, baffling, powerful,’ and it is,” says Stephanie. “It’s so hard to understand, even though I’ve been through it. It’s a disease of the mind and people have to want to quit for themselves. They have to have the willingness, which my mom did not have.”
“I would definitely recommend (a support group) for loved ones,” Stephanie says. “I think you can learn a lot of tools for how not to enable (your loved one). There’s a lot of codependency.”

Laura’s Story

When Laura’s mother was first arrested for drugs, she was left with her mom’s boyfriend with her 12-year-old sister and her four-year-old brother. “After this man raped my sister and beat my brother to death, I was sent to live with an aunt and uncle at eight months [old],” says Laura.

Laura’s opinion of her mother, who was constantly in and out of jail, changed as she grew. “As a young child, I always thought my mom was the best, even though I would only see her a couple times a year,” she says. “I never talked about her to my friends, but secretly believed as a child that she would get out (of jail), and we would be a happy family.”

When Laura was a young teenager, her mom got clean after being released from jail on probation. “She seemed to have this joy about her and I resented her for it,” Laura says. “Yes, she was clean and staying out of jail, but my siblings and I were still a mess, my brother was still dead, and my sister and I suffered a great deal of sexual abuse being passed around while she was using.”

Laura and her siblings are still struggling with issues from drug abuse to serious mental health problems because of their mother’s drug abuse. “I have gone through intensive therapy and have been hospitalized twice for severe depression, self-harm and suicide attempts,” she says. “Today I stand strong, at peace in God’s grace and mercy in my life, and blessed with four amazing children.”

Her advice: “I would say that God can overcome addiction and to not lose hope. There are many actions that my mom took under the influence of drugs that she doesn’t remember,” says Laura. “It’s not (the person), but the drugs that direct their behavior and actions. Forgiveness is the most powerful gift you can give yourself through it all.”

Trent’s Story

Although Trent’s dad has been sober for years now, Trent has vivid memories of the difficulties his dad’s alcoholism caused during his childhood. “It was hard when I was a kid. There were times I thought my parents would divorce or that my dad might get killed in an accident,” Trent says.

Like most addicts, Trent’s father didn’t think he had a problem, despite his family encouraging him to get help. What finally got him sober was court-ordered mandatory inpatient alcohol treatment. “Interestingly, getting sober made my dad’s life better in a very odd way: He became a leader,” says Trent. “His active participation in his AA group led him to be a sponsor and, occasionally, even a speaker at events.”

Trent’s father’s sobriety ultimately kept their family together and as an adult, Trent has even attended AA meetings with his father. Trent rarely drinks himself because alcoholism runs in his family and because he knows the problems it can cause.

His advice: “Don’t give up on trying to get your loved one help and don’t let them try to blame you for their addiction,” advises Trent. “The alcoholic needs to be held accountable. They will never get better if they believe the lie that it is someone or something outside of them that is causing them to drink so heavily. By letting them know that you will hold them accountable for their actions, you are really not giving up on them.”
Also, be sure to encourage your loved one if they’re working on sobriety. “Every year, month, week, day, hour, and minute of sobriety can be extremely challenging for them,” says Trent. “Letting them know that you know it’s hard and that you are proud of what they are accomplishing can go a long way in keeping your loved one sober.”

Megan’s story

It was at a state softball tournament when she was in junior high that Megan first realized that her mom’s drinking might be out of control. “All the parents were in the hotel bar drinking. Two of the parents had to carry my mom back to the hotel room,” says Megan. “She couldn’t stand or walk and I had to get her ready for bed.”

Life was different from then on. “I don’t think I had a chance for denial, the evidence was so clearly in front of me, but I did try to hide my mom and her issue from others,” Megan says. “Many times my sisters and I had to make up lies about why she wasn’t attending functions.” Megan took her mom to treatment for the first time about five years ago. “It wasn’t even noon and she couldn’t even walk,” Megan remembers.

“Having a parent with an addiction is terribly hard. When Mom was sober, I almost forgot and forgave her, simply because I was so happy to have my mom back. But when she was drinking, I almost hated her,” says Megan. The emotional strain was enormous with Megan alternating between pleading, begging, crying, yelling and threatening to exclude her mother from her life if she didn’t get help.

Her mom almost always refused help though, swearing she didn’t have a problem. Except for nearly a year sober, Megan’s mom was in and out of treatment, until the day last year when she started drinking on her way home from getting groceries, crashed her car, and died. “Given the severity of my mom’s drinking, I think it was a matter of time before it killed her, or worse, someone else,” she says.

Her advice: “You can’t change someone, and until your family member wants to change, there’s nothing you can do that will make them change. Empty threats do no good and all they will do is make you more upset,” Megan says. “It’s hard, but we have to remember that alcoholism is a disease. We wouldn’t be mad at our family members for having cancer. However, we also need to remember that we’re more mad at the fact that they won’t get help (than we are at them).”

If you need support for a loved one’s addiction, consider finding an Al-Anon group near you. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) also has a helpful booklet for family members.

Written by Sarah Ludwig

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