For Family/Friends

It is wonderful that you have chosen to take it upon yourself to seek out some information about addiction. My guess is that it is so that you can be more helpful to your family member or friend who is struggling with an addiction disorder.

The VERY best way that you can help your loved one is by getting educated yourself about this genetic, medical/biological, brain disease AND by taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. If you are healthy in these areas, then you will be most fit to offer healthy support your loved one. And, the trick here is that through this process, you’ll gain a great deal of insight about yourself and what you need to change about you.


It is important that you take an interest in learning more about this genetic, biological brain disease. Addiction is a complicated illness that is greatly misunderstood by most people, including most medical doctors, psychiatrists, counselors, and other medical professionals. The stigma that exists in our society keeps people from getting the help that they need, and it might keep you from appropriately responding to your loved one’s illness.


It is often said that the person using substances cannot do it on their own, but it is also true that the family member or loved ones of this person cannot do it alone either. There are many resources available for those struggling with addiction problems and for the family members or friends of the addicted. Find any resources you can to educate yourself about this disease: videos, books, groups like Al-anon or a local aftercare group, internet websites or groups, and addiction professionals who may be able to guide you (a counselor or other professional that works within the field of addiction). A list of addiction resources is listed in the “resources” section of this site. One key thing for family members to understand is: you did not cause this, you cannot cure it, and you definitely cannot control it.


Addiction is called a family disease because it impacts every person that has contact with the person suffering from the addiction disorder. Also, family members and friends usually are inexperienced in how to appropriately respond to the illness and quite often end up enabling the person, even without knowing that they are enablers. Enabling means doing something for someone that they CAN and NEED to do themselves. Enabling occurs when a person does something or provides something for an addicted person when that person is actively using substances OR is making poor decisions that are likely to lead to use. For example, allowing the person to leave treatment and return home with you when it was highly recommended that the person needed to continue on with treatment. Providing money, making excuses for them, taking care of things that they technically should be responsible for, and simply allowing them to drink or use excessively without experiencing any of the natural negative consequences — these are all examples of what might be considered enabling behaviors.


A clear message needs to be sent to the addicted person: “We will no longer support your addiction and unhealthy decisions. We will ONLY support recovery and healthy decisions.” Therefore, if the addicted person needs help with getting into treatment or getting to 12-step meetings after receiving treatment, then that kind of help is okay to provide. However, if they need help because they are still using or because they are not following their recommended plan for recovery, helping them would be enabling them to continue using or to continue making poor decisions. Examples of setting boundaries/limits: “If you do not go to treatment, you cannot come home.” “If you continue using, I cannot be a part of your life and you must leave.” “If you make healthy decisions (go to treatment, go to 12-step meetings, maintain abstinence), I will consider helping you with your goal of going back to school.” “If you decide to leave treatment, you will have to stay at a homeless shelter or halfway house.”


Codependency is defined as “being a partner in dependency”. Your loved one is “dependent” on a substance, meaning they feel that they have to have it to function or they put that substance first before anything else in their life. Typically, the addicted person’s family members attempt to stop that person from using or from having to face consequences and over time, become a part of the unhealthy cycle of addiction. The family members become Co-Dependent. For example, the addicted person focuses and obsesses on where their next drink or drug will come from and the family member focuses and obsesses on the addicted person. This codependent behavior becomes like an addiction for the family member because the issue begins to take over their own life and impacts the family in ways similar to the ways that addiction is impacting the addicted person (depression, poor coping skills, obsession, weight loss/gain, hopelessness, anxiety, anger/frustration, financial debt, job problems, social isolation or withdrawal, etc). If your life is negatively impacted because of the addicted person’s poor decisions, you may be struggling with codependency issues. You have to get help, too. In fact, often if the family member gets help and learns how to stop enabling, this naturally leads to the addicted person having to get help too because they may recognize that they have no one left to support their use and behaviors anymore. Negative consequences are a big motivator and when enabling stops and consequences of use are naturally allowed to occur, motivation for help can increase rapidly. Enablers rarely understand the power that they hold to help the person change simply by changing how they respond to the addicted person.


Your job is not to FIX your loved one. Your job is to work on YOU. Detaching with love is difficult to do, because you don’t want to see your loved one get hurt or continue to hurt themselves. However, detachment is the only way to get yourself healthier and also help your loved one see the problem for what it is. This is very important to understand: People with addiction disorders do not seek help until the pain of their use outweighs the pleasure of their use. The addicted person needs to face the pain of their use to get help and the way that you can help is by stopping your enabling behaviors and thereby putting up “walls”. Like a rat in a maze, you place a wall up to redirect the rat to go in the appropriate direction. Sometimes family members have to “inflict pain” or place a wall up (for example, not picking them up if they won’t go to treatment, refusing to bail them out of jail) in order to help the person make the decision that is best for their recovery. Remember, addiction has “hijacked” the addicted person’s brain and they are not able to think in healthy ways. Therefore, oftentimes family members have to think for the person, in other words, help make healthy decisions for them by helping them face the pain (consequences) of their use sooner rather than later. Help them feel the consequences by stepping out of their way.




Addiction becomes a way of life. Typically, the addicted person’s life revolves around their use. This means that the people they hang around use or enable their use; the places they go are places where they use or use is accepted or encouraged, and situations, hobbies, interests, experiences are all centered around using. You may have also noticed that the person had isolated themselves away from others, as this is another typical behavior that is associated with addiction. So, for the addicted person to abstain from using and continue their recovery process, all of the above behaviors have to change. Upon the addicted person’s return home, healthy recovery behaviors should be very noticeable/evident. For example, they may be attending outpatient treatment, 12-step meetings or other recovery-focused meetings, obtaining a sponsor, working the 12-steps, and generally making decisions on a daily basis that place their recovery from substances first in their life. Just as substance use was their first priority before treatment, now their recovery from using must come first. There should be careful planning and consideration around everyday activities, parties, or events that may expose the person to alcohol or other substances OR expose them to people, places, and/or situations in which they have used substances in the past. If this type of planning/attention is not in place, this may be a concern. They should not isolate themselves at home or in their room. They should be making efforts to change the addiction lifestyle behaviors into recovery lifestyle behaviors. If you feel that these changes are not occurring, then again you must send a clear message: “I will only support recovery-related behaviors and healthy recovery decisions.” You can’t force your loved one to change, but you can change how you allow their unhealthy decisions to impact you and your life. Sometimes this will require counseling or other support (Alanon meetings) for the family members involved and this type of support can be extremely helpful.


  1. To Whom It May Concern,

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  2. Nar Anon meetings did not help me. These were parents of active users. I want to learn how to help someone in recovery. Question: how does a non-user know the difference between active using and PAWS during recovery? And how does one know when to back away when there is a lack of non-user support? How do we handle silence and mood swings?

    Thank you, Le

    • Nar Anon and Alanon meetings are really for family members to learn to help THEMSELVES, not to learn how to help the person who is using or in early recovery (although you will be helping the person who is using by learning how to help yourself). The first thing you learn in the NarAnon/Alanon meetings is that you did not cause this, you can’t control it, and you can’t change it. It is up to the person who is using to get motivated enough to want to change and family members often get in the way of that by stepping in and enabling them to avoid feeling the consequences of their use and this keeps them using. So, the message to you is for you to take your focus off of the person who is using (or maybe in early recovery) and to focus on yourself and how to get back to making yourself happy and healthy again. The person using tends to focus and obsess on where they will get their next drink or drug because they are addicted to the substance. Simultaneously, the family or friends tend to focus and obsess on the person using and how to get them to stop — the person and trying to stop their use becomes the “addiction” of the family. The consequences are the same for all involved: depression, anxiety, financial problems, emotional problems, social withdrawal, trouble sleeping, etc. I’ve worked with families in your position for the last 11+ years and I can tell you that the best results come when family members 1. Educate themselves about addiction as a brain disease, and 2. Stop focusing on the addicted person and focus on themselves and their health and happiness again. Just like the addicted person has denial and a false sense of control over their use, the family also usually has a great deal of denial and a false sense of control over the addicted person. Learn everything you need to learn about the disease (study the info on this blog and check out other resources on the resource page) and stop anything you are doing that may be enabling your loved one to keep using or to continue making unhealthy decisions that lead to self-destruction. Your message needs to be “I will only support healthy recovery decisions.” So, if they are taking care of themselves and doing everything they need to do for their recovery (for example: going to treatment, attending meetings, getting a sponsor, exercising, being rigorously honest with themselves and others, being responsible with their lives, finances, etc) you will SEE the change in them. If they aren’t, you will be able to pick up on it and that is when you stop any support that is allowing them to continue to live comfortably and continue their behavior. You won’t be able to tell what is PAWS and what is continued use because they look the same…chronic withdrawal occurs in active users and PAWS is post-acute withdrawal symptoms…or, simply put, withdrawal. So, they look and feel the same. You should still be seeing positive changes if the person is serious about their recovery. If they have not gone to treatment and are trying to do it halfway without a full effort, it isn’t going to work. Your job then is to step out of the way and allow them to face the consequences of their actions. Stop any sort of support (housing, financial, emotional, etc) and allow them to run out of resources and face the pain of their use. You can encourage treatment and let them know that you fully support them getting help, but other than that, you won’t support any unhealthy choices. If you continue to support unhealthy choices, you are supporting their use of substances and technically helping them to continue to harm themselves. My recommendation would be to go back to Nar Anon or Alanon and try to view it in a different way — it isn’t for you to learn how to help your loved one. It is for you to learn how to help yourself. Best of luck to you…DD

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