Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease that usually gets worse without some form of intervention and treatment. Although families cannot control or cure their loved one’s disease—the impetus for that change must come from somewhere within the addicted individual—families can create a recovery­ oriented base of support that promotes the addict’s willingness to get help. Many families have found the following strategies to be helpful.

When my daughter was a sophomore in high school, her behavior changed in disturbing ways. She dropped out of activities that she used to enjoy, including dance and voice lessons; she began skipping classes and was chronically late for school; her grades plummeted; she began selling personal possessions; her personal habits became slovenly; and she began lying to me on a habitual basis.

I suspected depression and took her to at least four child psychologists during the next two years. She refused to open up to any of them, but they all told me more or less the same thing: that my daughter was a normal teenager with a good head on her shoulders who was going through a particularly rough version of typical teen rebellion. I had nothing to worry about. Time would solve the problem.

None of them suggested that she might have a drug problem, and I was too deep in my own denial to even consider the possibility. Unfortunately, I was a classic example of “It can’t happen in my family” thinking. It was only years later, after she had cycled down into heroin addiction, that she revealed that she had taken LSD more than fifty times in high school and had been routinely stoned on pot. In retrospect, it was obvious that most of her disturbing behaviors were classic symptoms of addiction.

I tell this story not to chastise the counseling profession— although I do feel that those four psychologists failed me and my daughter—but to illustrate the point that despite the enormous amounts of money being spent on the nation’s war on drugs, there remains a dangerous lack of knowledge about drugs and their effects, not just among families, but among mental health professionals as well.

Addiction is truly one of the great social and medical dilemmas of our time. When addiction enters a family system, familiar relationships, rules, and routines are shaken. Certain rock­solid beliefs may fly out the window. During the early, shocking days of acknowledging the addiction, most families flounder through an emotional quagmire. Eventually, they seek answers. This is an important first step.

Getting educated about addiction is essential if families are to have any realistic hope of helping their loved one. In this respect, addiction is no different from any other disease: the more you understand about its nature, effects, and treatment, the more adept you’ll be at responding effectively to the disease. A list of helpful sources of information, including other books and fact based websites, appears at the back of this book. You can also ask questions of professionals, especially counselors who specialize in addiction.

Twelve Step meetings are also an important source of information. Joining an Al­Anon, Nar­Anon, or other support group for families of addicts may be critical for maintaining your own sense of well-being while learning about the disease. Attending a few open Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings is another excellent way to deepen your understanding of addiction. People who speak at these meetings are almost always in recovery, and their stories are usually enlightening and inspiring. The bottom line is this: the more families know about addiction, the more able they are to offer effective support.

Be Supportive

Being supportive does not mean we allow others to take advantage of us. It does mean showing others that we care, offering encouragement, and treating them with respect. Being supportive also implies that we ourselves are healthy and stable enough to provide support to others.

Of course, being supportive is difficult when you’re feeling frustrated, angry, or outraged. Sometimes an addict’s behavior can become so destructive that the family chooses to limit contact with the person or to ask him or her to move out of the family home. In these situations, families can still be supportive by expressing themselves in terms of wanting to help. They can say to someone whose addiction is creating havoc in the home, “You can’t live with us right now because being here isn’t helping you. We can’t give you what you need.” They can then suggest alternative living arrangements such as a residential program.

In the case of minor children, parents should seek guidance about how to proceed. The decision to ask a minor child to leave home is one that should be made only with professional guidance and only as a last resort. One counselor observed, “Parents who are advised to use ‘tough love’ sometimes think the best answer is to throw the kid out. These kids often end up getting into things they may never have gotten into if their parents had taken a different approach.”

Even when families make the painful decision to distance themselves from their loved one, they can frame their decision in terms of care and support: “We love you. We believe in you. When you’re ready to get help, we’ll be here for you.”

Don’t Enable the Addiction

The distinction between helping and enabling can be confusing. Enabling, as the word is used in the treatment community, is any action that in any way makes it easier for someone to continue using. Some family members define it as doing for the addicts what they can and should be doing for themselves. For example, loaning an addicted person twenty dollars is a clear case of enabling. In this case, the loan will make it easier to purchase drugs. Paying an addict’s bills is enabling. Lying and covering up for the addict is enabling. Often it is easy to identify an enabling act, even though it is not always easy to prevent ourselves from doing it. At other times, enabling is not so easy to spot.

Like me, most families struggle to define the line between helping and enabling. Sometimes families are forced to make painful decisions. To offer a helping hand to a family member in need is normal. Unfortunately, it is also normal for addicts to prey on family members who want to help. One way to sort through this thorny issue is to ask ourselves if our actions are supporting addiction or recovery. We won’t always get it right, but we’ll at least have some basis for our decision making.

Detach with Love

Anyone who’s ever attended a Twelve Step meeting knows that detachment looms large as a way to cope with an addicted loved one. “Detach with love,” we’re told, “if you want to preserve your sanity.” Which is all well and good, I used to think, but what about my daughter? Don’t I have a duty to try to help? Doesn’t detachment seem a little bit selfish? A little bit like giving up?

It can definitely feel that way at first, especially if we’ve come to believe that our loved ones can’t get clean without us. But here’s the problem: the longer we’re a passenger on the roller coaster of addiction, the less we’re able to provide any meaningful help. When we’re right there with them through those peaks and valleys, we can’t step back, regain our balance, and offer the kind of clear sighted support that might make a difference.

Detachment is neither unkind nor unloving. It’s simply a recognition of the fact that we can’t live our loved ones’ lives for them. When we accept this fundamental truth, we begin to understand that detachment is actually good for our addicted loved ones.

For one thing, detachment allows us to let go of expectations that perpetuate shame. As we’ve seen, most addicts don’t like themselves very much. On some level, they know they’re messing up their lives, but they don’t know how to stop. Their sense of shame grows deeper every time they see us look at them with disapproval or disappointment and every time we resort to nagging, scolding, crying, threatening, shaming, and other manipulative behaviors. Our obsessive watchfulness gives our loved ones one more reason to feel bad about them­ selves, and one more reason to use. Detaching from our expec­ tations of them reduces our loved ones’ shame, granting them the space to find their own way.

Detachment also gives addicts the opportunity to learn from the consequences of their own choices. It would be great if we could learn important life lessons simply by being warned about negative consequences. If that were the case, we’d all make fewer mistakes and have fewer regrets to look back on. Unfortunately, most of us have to learn through experience, which means facing the consequences of our choices. That includes addicts. To fully comprehend the negative effects that substances have on their lives, they have to suffer the consequences of their choices. When we detach from their problems, we allow them to do that.

Finally, detachment allows addicts to experience the satisfaction that comes from personal accomplishment, while depriving them of a convenient scapegoat when things go wrong. Sometimes, when we solve problems for our addicted loved ones, things turn out well. The trouble is, these are our accomplishments, not theirs. They don’t get to experience the satisfaction and build the self esteem that comes from knowing they did it on their own. On the other hand, when our problem ­solving goes wrong, our addicted loved ones can point the finger of blame at us: “This is your fault. You set this up and now look what happened.” Even if it’s our loved ones who turned a great opportunity into a disastrous mess, our in­volvement makes us the target of their anger and disappointment. Instead of looking at their own role in the outcome and learning from the experience, they look at us.

By detaching from our loved ones, we let go of trying to solve their problems, giving them the opportunity to learn from their own failures and successes.