How to Support a Friend Whose Loved One is an Addict
What's My Family Member's Everyday Life Like?
The best way to describe how it feels to have a loved one battling addiction is: isolating.
It’s hard to relate to other people because your life is chaotic and spinning around an unhealthy, unpredictable person.
It’s hard to make commitments, like volunteering for church activities or children’s school trips, because you’re overwhelmed and never know what will happen from day to day.
Going to work to deal with a whole other set of problems can be a relief if you get yourself motivated to go but some days, it’s too much to handle.
Inviting friends over for coffee is generally out of the question because you never know what environment your home will be in that day and to be honest, it's easier to withdraw than reach out.
If you’re the wife of an addict, being around other couples is almost unbearable. Especially at church. It’s hard to make conversation with other wives or mothers, “Oh, you made 300 cookies for the school bake sale? Made all your kids snacks from scratch? Your husband watched the kids and sent you to the spa for your birthday? And then you came home to a fully cooked dinner? Wow… um, my husband... he, um... wow, that's really great."
Cue: Loneliness, jealousy, bitterness, resentment, insecurity, unhappiness and a great big ol’ “Why, God?!”.
Your friend or family member is heavy-burdened. There's a lingering dark cloud hovering over everything she does. If you've ever experienced grief you know small things feel like big things. Addiction keeps close friends and family members in an almost constant state of grief. There's moments of joy but mostly it's just hard.
If she's executing the daily tasks of life and seems to be doing well- don't be fooled, she's being strong.
If she's overwhelmed and frozen in her situation- she isn't weak, it's just become too much for her to bear.
My Friend Doesn't Talk About Her Loved One's Addiction, What's She Feeling?
It’s tough to fully explain how it feels to be caught up in a loved one's web of addiction, lies and horror but I’m going to try and verbalize it so you can understand what your friend or family member is really dealing with.
Having a loved one with an addiction feels scary. It’s living in a darkness you can’t escape. It’s an emotional rollercoaster because you’re loving someone broken, they repair themselves before falling apart all over again. The moments of normalcy give you hope. When the switch flips you're devastated but not surprised. This makes you look cynical but really, you're simply being realistic because you've come to understand the nature of addiction.
You want to fix them but you know you can’t so you sit helplessly by the wayside, watching them destroy themselves. It fills you with sorrow. On the other hand, they’re not kind to you. They’re mean. They’re selfish. They’re angry. They use you. They manipulate you. They lie. Some days, they hate you. Others, they love you. You know this is part of their brokenness so you feel compassion but your compassion only makes things worse. 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.
Tough love hurts you more than it does your loved one.
Whether in a crisis or recovery phase, the emotions are still very much the same. When a loved one goes into recovery the insecurities are still there. The boundaries still need to be in place. Recovery from addiction is one of the, "Long narrow roads" Jesus talked about leading to life.
"Go in through the narrow gate. The gate to destruction is wide, and the road that leads there is easy to follow. A lot of people go through that gate. But the gate to life is very narrow. The road that leads there is so hard to follow that only a few people find it."
It's important as a friend of someone going through this you understand the high likelihood of a relapse, for example; 40%-60% of people addicted to substances relapse [Source]. Here's some stats on some of the most common addictions:
- 48% of people addicted to marijuana relapse. [Source]
- 42% of people addicted to hallucinogens relapse. [Source]
- 52.2% of meth addicts relapse. [Source]
- 61.9% of cocaine addicts relapse. [Source]
- 68.4% of alcoholics relapse. [Source]
- 78.2% of heroin addicts relapse. [Source]
- Gambling addiction has a relapse rate of 80%-90% within the first year. [Source]
- Sex addiction has one of the highest relapse rates of 91%-94% within five years even with regular 12-step program attendance, sex-addiction peer support and therapy. [Source]
Sadly, there's also a growing mortality rate among substance abuse users so if that's the addiction your friend is dealing with, she's carrying that fear around too.
Deaths due to drug overdoses have climbed significantly in recent years, jumping 102 percent between 1999 and 2010 alone to make it the leading cause of injury death in America ahead of traffic accidents and gun-related incidents. [Source]
Although there are many of different types of addictions, generally speaking, most compulsive behaviours leave family members feeling the same way. I hope this helps give some insight into what your friend or family member might be feeling. I know it sounds terribly depressing but don't despair! Recovery does happen. Treatment can work. God does heal.
How To Help Your Friend or Family Member Feel Supported
1. Ask her if she want to talk about it. We need to talk. We want to talk. We don’t want to bear this burden alone. This isn’t a topic that’s difficult for us to discuss. If we seem hesitant to talk, it’s because we aren’t sure what you can handle hearing. The darkness is very deep. There’s a never-ending pit of despair that comes with addiction and what we say might shock you. We’re often ashamed of our lives and wish our story belonged to someone else. We don’t want to be judged, just heard. If we cry, it’s not because what you said was hurtful but because we’ve been holding it in and being strong. If we didn’t want to talk that day, ask again later.
If we’re complaining too often, take us out to vent, have dinner, get it off our chest and then tell us gently, we need to stop talking about it now. You’re protecting us from ourselves because constantly complaining only makes us feel worse.
"My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him."
2. Be on her side. We have been wronged. Our addicted loved ones are already putting all the blame on us for their behaviours, we don’t need more. There’s a tremendous amount of guilt that comes along with loving an addict.
Mothers feel guilty for not seeing the warning signs and being unable to protect their children from harm.
Wives feel guilty for taking on the “head of household” role and not being loving enough.
Siblings feel ignored, their lives aren’t as important because they’re the “healthy” ones but then guilty for feeling so.
We need to know you support us. You may not agree with everything we say but as our friends, trust us and have our back.
3. If she has kids, babysit for a day. Take our children to the movies. To the park. Pick them up from school for us. Take them anywhere. We’ll pay for it. It takes so much effort to be a loving, caring mother and we’re exhausted. Silence, a hot bath, some candles and a glass of “I’m not an alcoholic” wine is just what we need (Or a delicious iced tea, if we also battled an addiction). A small break goes a long way in helping us stay peaceful amidst our storm.
4. Give her a small token to show you’re thinking of her. Flowers, a card, a pretty scarf, a cupcake- it’s the thought that counts. We spend most of, if not all our time, pouring into others ignoring ourselves. Showing us you’re thinking about us with a small gift does two things: Reminds us we're valued and treats us to something we wouldn’t do for ourselves. A little goes a long way!
5. Be on the lookout for an opportunity to help her environment. Have we been griping about not having time to paint that one bathroom? Has our flowerbed been poorly neglected? Is our couch old and peeling into shreds? Do our windows need cleaning? Have we become a bit of a hoarder? Anything you can do to help our physical environment will help us feel better on the inside. Your investment into our lives will have a long-lasting effect on our overall health and daily life.
6. Bring her a casserole. I say it all the time but nobody brings you a casserole when your husband goes to rehab (There may or may not be a book in the making! *Winky face). I’m not sure why this is such a big thing to me but it is. It could be because I personally don’t want to cook when I’m upset but eating a healthy, wholesome meal does wonders for the soul. If your friend or family member has children you won’t only be blessing her but you’ll be blessing the entire family (I'd love a dairy-free, wheat-free, paleo-friendly macaroni and cheese if anybody's interested *More winky faces).
7. Sincerely ask how she is. People often ask, “How’s it going?” or “How’s things?” and we obligingly say, “Fine. Good. I’m fine. The kids are good”. What we really want to say is, “Things are NOT good. I am NOT okay. The kids are having a tough time” but often people don’t really want the truth. They ask because it’s polite. Ask us with sincerity how we really are and we’ll be ever thankful you cared enough to ask.
8. If you know something she doesn’t, tell her. Please don’t hide truths from us. It doesn’t help to keep us in the dark. We need to know what’s really happening so we can react accordingly. This is especially true for wives. Dear friends of our husbands, if you know something- tell us. We are hurting more than you know. A hard truth doesn’t bring more pain, it gives freedom. Living in uncertainty makes us bounce back and forth between compassion and asserting boundaries. Without the truth, it’s hard to know the right thing to do. We love them. We will do what is best for them, not what feels good. Trust us we know what that is (We probably do, we’ve been riding the rollercoaster!).
9. If you see red flags she doesn’t see, tell her. Being on the outside looking in you might be able to see behaviour we’ve become accustomed to. You might spot the slide before we realize our loved ones are falling. Our love for them can be blinding. We hope for the best and want to get to a place of trust so we unintentionally overlook or make excuses for wrong behaviour. The bar of personal conduct shouldn’t be set lower just because our loved ones struggle with addiction. Be fairly warned, we may not receive advice well but it'll be stored into our subconscious. We’ll look more closely at our loved ones or our own behaviour.
10. Pray for her. People often brush prayer off as being a “wishy-washy” thing to say, “Hey, I’ll pray for you” but heartfelt prayer is powerful. I know prayer can soften the heart of an addict, I've seen it happen!
Some specific things you can pray for would be:
- That she has supernatural, inexplainable peace amidst the storm she's in
- For God to make the actions He wants her to take clear
- Her mouth to be silenced in wisdom during heated moments
- For the right people to be in her life giving her guidance
- For her loved one to have a desire to get to the root of their pain
- Healing for her loved one’s hearts
“The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? But I, the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives. I give all people their due rewards, according to what their actions deserve.”
Things to Avoid Saying to Your Friend
In your innocence, you may say some things that hurt more than help. I mean this in the kindest way because I understand no one understands addiction until they experience it. So here's some gentle suggestions of things that are better NOT to say.
Don't compare your problems to ours unless they're major. The whole, "My daughter did this once at a party" or "My husband has problems too, no one is perfect" doesn't help. It only confirms to us that you don't get it. This is worse than the time your daughter got drunk at party or the one time you caught your husband watching porn.
Don't ever tell a wife to submit to her husband with an addiction. Period.
Don't say, "It's probably not as bad you think" because in all likely-hood, it's probably a lot worse than what we think. We live with hopeful, bias blinders on.
Try not to pressure us to be more involved (in anything). Volunteering at church or fundraising for school might not be something we can emotionally handle.
Don't ask us for money. We probably don't have any. If we do, we're desperately fighting for it.
Tread lightly when advising a wife to leave her husband for the sake of her kids or telling a mother to no longer allow her child to come home. Those are not small decisions or boundaries, they're huge. They'll ignite a river of events our loved ones may or may not be able to survive. It's okay to say what you see, just be very gentle. If you sense resistance, I wouldn't push it.
Is Addiction Hopeless?
No! Nothing is hopeless with God. I know there’s healing for addiction because addiction is not bigger than God but there's days we feel like nothing will ever change. If you want to know more about how to support someone with an addiction read, "Five Ways to Support a Loved One with an Addiction Without Losing Yourself".
Remember, a friend to be there for us, to cry with us, help us with our daily tasks and get us through the hard days means everything. We're fighting a battle we never planned on fighting and having you stand behind us gives us strength to keep going.
Your support gives us life by reminding us we have a life to live too.
I just want to give a special thanks to my friend Danielle. She’s been a wonderfully supportive friend to me for the past few years and I know I would of been much worse off had I not had her behind me. She’s loved me, loved my children, listened to my cries and I am eternally, forever grateful. Thank you, my friend. You’re a beautifully unique, selfless soul! XO