By Stephanie Thomas
We’re all quick to recognize the burdens of others, especially those that can’t be helped. A cancer diagnosis, major surgery, even the inevitable exhaustion of a newborn all warrant a loving and actionable response. And so we call, we visit, we follow up.
When it comes to loving the families of those struggling with addiction, however, the way forward seems less clear. As one father explained, “No one brings dinner when your daughter is an addict.”1
Perhaps our inaction comes from a fear of what others might think about our show of support. Maybe we don’t fully understand what a family touched by addiction is up against. Or, most likely, we’re just not sure where to begin.
Let’s take a moment to consider how addiction impacts family members and how a little loving support might help ease their burdens.
Behind Closed Doors: What Does Loving Someone With an Addiction Really Look Like?
Imagine for a moment that your 19-year-old daughter receives a Stage 3 cancer diagnosis. How do you feel? Now imagine instead that you learn of your 19-year-old daughter’s heroin addiction. Are you relieved by this change in the story? Probably not.
That’s because families of addicted loved ones often struggle with the same levels of worry that families of gravely ill patients do. Parents lay awake in bed wondering, “Will tonight be the night our son dies?” Spouses argue, cry and debate how much they should share with their children. Kids internalize, act out or even seem oblivious.
Bills pile up. The car takes a beating from regular rides to the hospital or treatment center. Work, community and other commitments take a back seat to the new priority of seeing your loved one well.
Yes, the disease of addiction hits just as hard as other diseases.
But there’s something else. Leah Grey, founder of Grey Ministries and the wife of a recovering addict, names the worst part of loving a person struggling with substance abuse as loneliness.2 And it makes sense, right? There you are at your lowest, most desperate place, and, instead of being bolstered by support, you’re swimming in shame.
She goes on to paint this picture: “It’s an emotional rollercoaster because you’re loving someone broken, they repair themselves before falling apart all over again. … So you make boundaries to keep you safe from physical and emotional harm. Your boundaries and compassion are constantly at odds with each other because what you know is right doesn’t feel good. They need your boundaries but they hate you for it.”2
And you’re going it all alone. Really, can you even imagine?
Show Your Support: 8 Easy Ways to Help
When we put ourselves in the shoes of a person whose loved one battles addiction, we’re compelled to respond. And just in case you need one additional morsel of motivation, consider this: Kindness does not equal condoning. Kindness translates as love. So move forward in love.
1. Ask “How are things going?” Tone is everything here. Ask the question in a way that communicates your openness to listening and your understanding if they prefer to answer casually. When the door opens to more personal conversation, walk on through.1
2. Openly show your acceptance. Parents in particular deal with loads of guilt surrounding their child’s addiction. For many parents, peace comes only from realizing that addiction is a disease.3 You can help by stating upfront and often that you find no fault in your friend’s parenting — or, for that matter, her role as a wife, sister or daughter.
3. Do your homework. Read up on what addiction does to families as well as the specific struggle your friend’s loved one is up against. You may want to start with the fact that, for most people, the risk of relapse never goes away.4
4. Invite her along. Yes, her world and her priorities have shifted. And sure, she may decline your offer. But if you’re getting together with friends, headed to the park for the afternoon or simply running out to grab coffee, ask her to come too. The opportunity to feel normal will be a most welcome gift.
5. Point your friend in the right direction. Let’s be clear. You don’t want to show up at her door with an attitude and a plan. And there’s no need to forward her every article you come across that might just kinda-sorta relate. Instead, tell her about the support available to family members affected by addiction, including Al-Anon, Nar-Anon and Parents of Addicted Loved Ones (PAL).5
6. Provide some breathing room. Look for practical ways to allow her some margin — so she can attend to pressing issues or take a much-needed break. You might purchase and put away her groceries, send her out of the house while you clean up or watch the kids for the afternoon.2
7. Treat her like you would any other person whose family member received a difficult diagnosis. Because she did too. Drop by with a favorite meal, call to check in on a regular basis and ask not “What can I do?” but “When can I do this?”
8. Speak kindly and minimally about your friend to others. In the turmoil of addiction, trust holds special value. Stay trustworthy. Watch what you say about your friend and her loved one’s struggle, if you say anything at all.6
If all else fails, think action over words. A smile, a card, a helping hand — and the commitment to continue those loving actions in the future — are all she and her family really needs.
1 Lake, Larry. “Comfort Food.” Slate, November 8, 2013.
2 Grey, Leah. “How to Support a Friend Whose Loved One Is an Addict.” Grey Ministries, Accessed December 14, 2017.
3 Wallace, Kelly. “Being an Addict’s Mom: ‘It’s just a very, very sad place.’” CNN, August 28, 2014.
4 “Drugs, Brains and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, July 2014.
5 “Family Disease.” National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, February 24, 2016.
6 DeMeo, Terry. “How to Help a Friend in Need — 7 Tips That Can Help a Troubled Friend.” Huffington Post, March 10, 2017.