• There is no miracle cure for addiction, but there are steps you can take to help as a family member – small changes to your own behaviour will make your own life easier.

  • Rebecca Harris gives us some tips for managing the situation

  • You can find an addiction counsellor here

By the time I met Lucy, she was desperate. Her much-loved only son, Ben, had started using drugs while at school, and by the age of seventeen was addicted to heroin.

Lucy and her husband Chris 'panicked' when they found out. They put Ben into a private rehab, but within days of leaving he was using again. He stole from them, and then lied about it. By this point Chris wanted to throw Ben out, but Lucy could not stand the thought of her son living on the streets, and endless rows wore away at their relationship until it was Chris who left home. Four years later Ben was still living with Lucy, still using heroin, and doing nothing but hang around with his 'loser friends.' Lucy knew Ben was wasting his life, but more than that she was terrified that the drugs would kill him.

'I just want my son back,' she told me in our first session.

In my work with the families and partners of substance misusers I have met many men and women like Lucy. Addiction affects everyone around it and is often hardest of all for parents: they worry that their mistakes have caused the problem, and they don't know how to help. They may feel ashamed, or pressured to cut off all contact and leave the child to find their own 'rock bottom.' For some this feels right, but for other parents it is simply not possible. Lucy had put her life on hold to focus on Ben, but nothing was changing. Her efforts to beat his addiction had become part of a cycle they were both locked into.

There is no miracle cure for addiction, but if you are in a situation like Lucy's there are steps you can take. Small changes to your own behaviour will make your life easier and help create a different dynamic between you.

1. Step back: 'detach with love'

This does not have to mean closing the door altogether. However if you are continually available to rescue your loved one – giving them money, for instance, or covering up for their mistakes – you are likely to be shielding them from the worst consequences of their choices. It may feel frightening, but sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is to help less.

2. Set boundaries and stick to them

Negotiate and agree boundaries that feel achievable to you. For example you might want to have a 'no drugs in the house' rule, or to set a curfew. While excessively rigid boundaries can be problematic too, it is often particularly hard for the families of substance misusers to stick to the conditions they have set. Agreeing a boundary and keeping it will help you will feel more in control, and your loved one will benefit from the consistent message.

3. Think about yourself 

Family members are often so focused on the addict that they struggle to remember their own needs. Sometimes – as in Lucy's case – this preoccupation has become a part of the unhelpful dynamic surrounding the addiction and is actually helping to keep it going. Removing yourself enough to focus on your life and do something purely for you can have a surprising knock-on effect for everyone involved.

4. Get some support

This could be a group such Alanon (part of the 12 Step Fellowship) or another local support group for others in the same position. You can find out what is available in your area from your GP or Adfam. Alternatively you may benefit from individual or family therapy. The key thing is that you don't try to cope entirely on your own.

5. Change does happen, but no one else can make it happen

It took several meetings with Lucy before she could focus on herself instead of Ben. Gradually, however, she was able to begin making changes. Lucy and Chris attended some sessions together, and we worked on coming up with a joint approach to Ben that they both felt happy with. As Lucy backed off, Ben was forced to take more responsibility for the choices he was making. He agreed to come to some sessions with his parents, and eventually admitted that his use had got out of control. He chose to go to a local drug and alcohol service where he was given help to address his problems, and after a second stint in rehab is now looking forward to a much brighter future.

Further reading

The role of the subconscious in addiction

The causes of addiction: from a counsellor and recovering addict

Addiction and co-dependency in relationships

The psychology of addiction: why do some people get addicted and not others?