If A Loved One Is Struggling With Addiction, Remember These 5 Things

The holidays can be a magical time of year. But when a loved one is struggling with addiction, that magic quickly fades, and the glimmer of the season dims. Whether it’s catching a sibling swallow a few mystery pills before exchanging gifts or watching an alcoholic parent ring in the new year with a champagne toast, addiction can cast an ominous shadow over what should be a joyous season. Moreover, the increased amount of socializing — i.e. open bars at the office party — and stress (shipping costs how much?!) means that the holidays can be a relapse trigger for many addicts.

The statistics are staggering: Nearly 21 million Americans suffer from a substance abuse disorder. That means one in seven people in the United States is expected to develop a substance abuse disorder at some point in their lives — but only one in 10 will receive treatment. This means that many addicts — as well as the people who care about them — are left dealing with their addiction on their own.

When emotions run high and start to bubble to the surface, keep these five facts in mind if a loved one is struggling with addiction.

1. Addiction Is A Disease — Not A Moral Failing Or Character Flaw

In a landmark report on alcohol, drugs, and health released last month, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said that we need to rethink how we talk about addiction.

“For far too long, too many in our country have viewed addiction as a moral failing,” Murthy says in the report. “We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw — it is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.”

The 400-page document, “Facing Addiction in America,” marks the first time a U.S. Surgeon General has dedicated a report to substance abuse and related disorders. The report classifies addiction as a public health problem that requires a public health solution.

Altering our collective dialogue about addiction means talking about the subject honestly and openly — without stigma or shame. Only then will we be able to properly address the harsh truth that we’ve turned our backs on the addiction crisis in this country — and admit that our one-step treatment plan of mass incarceration just isn’t working: Of the more than 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails, more than 65 percent meet medical criteria for substance abuse disorders.

2. Their Addiction Is Not Your Fault

Around the holidays — when many of us are desperate for a unified family front — it can be especially easy to fall into a trap of self-blame. Maybe if you had a better job or if you’d married so-and-so, your parents wouldn’t worry so much. And if they didn’t worry so much, they wouldn’t reach for the bottle or the medicine cabinet.

That line of thinking can be pervasive. But it’s also incredibly dangerous. You are just as much in control of a loved one’s addiction as you are of their diabetes or high cholesterol. You already carry the weight of loving them through such a destructive illness — don’t take on the false belief that you are somehow the reason that illness exists. William S. Burroughs, in his novel Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, explains it best: “If you have never been addicted, you can have no clear idea what it means to need junk with the addict’s special need. You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict.”

3. You Are Not Alone

One in six Americans binge drink. More people use prescription opioids than tobacco. And substance abuse disorders are more common than cancer diagnoses. These statistics demonstrate that you likely know someone who is also trying to get through the holidays with an addiction in the family, whether it’s their own or a loved one’s.

Still, grappling with intrafamilial addiction is a special kind of struggle, and it is one that can feel isolating and hopeless. And since addiction is still shrouded in stigma, it’s a topic that many people are shamed into keeping secret. Thankfully, there are support resources that can help (more on that below).

4. It Is Possible To Separate The Person From The Addict

But I’ll be the first to tell you that doing so is much easier said than done. Getting to a place where you’re able to do that will likely take a lot of time. If you grew up with addiction in the household, it’s that much harder to separate the person from the addict because, chances are, the two are inextricably linked. Resentment may affect your ability to see the person removed from the addiction.

Something that’s worked for me is trying to focus on the good moments and memories I share with my loved one who has an addiction. Remember: An addict is much more than an addict. No one wants to be defined by a one-dimensional descriptor. Think about all of the other complexities and traits that make this person special and important to you. What is it about their story that you find admirable? What do you find to be tragic? Understanding that this person is more than their addiction will help you find common ground and be more empathetic.

5. There's Support Available For You

An addict’s behavior is destructive — not only to themselves but to everyone around them. And the reality is that their struggle will quickly become your struggle.

Sometimes, finding the strength to fight the good fight will come from within. But other times, you’ll have to seek that strength elsewhere.

Fortunately, there are services and support groups intended specifically for the loved ones of individuals suffering from alcohol and drug addiction. These include Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Co-Dependents Anonymous, Dual Recovery Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Learn to Cope, and Parents of Addicted Loved Ones.

While you may be tempted to put your emotional and psychological needs on the backburner to take care of an addict, don’t compromise your own health and sanity in the name of someone else’s struggle.

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