• Addiction isn't just the addicted person's difficulty, it affects those that love them too

  • Counsellor Judy Wilson-Smith offers her guidance for family members who are struggling with the impact of addiction

  • We have addiction counsellors on Welldoing – find them here

If you are reading this article, you may be someone who is living with a family member who: drinks to oblivion; is frequently stoned; has gambled away your savings; is compulsively unfaithful having sex with multiple strangers; is being threatened for money by a drug dealer. 

It’s not just the using behaviour either. You know you’re being lied to; you feel manipulated and coerced; you might be physically abused. You don’t recognise the person you’re living with as the once loving partner, child or parent you have cherished.  

Somewhere in the back of your mind is a nagging voice that vocalises an inner knowing that your loved one has an addiction problem. You notice that in your fear, you don’t want to give the thought space in your consciousness yet your relationship with them is, at times, a living hell and there is no other explanation.

How can this be happening and to you of all people? You’re intelligent, kind and capable. You have loved them and been loved by them (or so you thought).

You stand in both your inner knowing and your denial and you look both ways. In this moment, you know something has to change; you cannot live like this anymore yet you fear the potential upheaval and disruption in your life; the legal and emotional unpicking of the relationship; the prospect of loneliness or the exhaustion of having to start again. You might even fear domestic abuse.  You might feel trapped with no way out.

You sit with a profound sadness and deep disappointment that the love you have felt has been trampled. And maybe there’s another troubling thought: did the other ever really love you?

You long for your loved one to accept that they have a problem and do something about it. There are moments of respite, of acknowledgement between you that neither of you can go on like this; moments of resolve and commitment to get professional help; of remorse and regret of the harm done to each other. These are moments of intimacy which give you hope that your relationship can be recovered and life restored to normal. But the pull of the addiction is extraordinarily powerful and soon relapse is looking you in the eye. What do you do? Who do you talk to?

Friends and family offer advice when what you really want is empathy. Most of the advice, you have worked out for yourself. Deciding what to do can be much more nuanced and complex involving serious moral and practical dilemmas outside most people’s experience.

When you have to choose between your marriage and your 17-year-old son with a skunk habit, will you throw out your son knowing he could get beaten up on the streets and you might never see him again? When your wife racks up another eye-watering gambling debt and says she’ll kill herself if you leave, what are you going to do?  You’re a stay-at home Mum financially dependent on your husband and you discover he has spent every last penny on cocaine and call girls; what are your options? If you live with an alcoholic who beats you up when they’re drunk yet you’ll be shunned by your family and community if you leave, what choice do you have?  It’s not easy.

When we love the addict/alcoholic, it’s very tempting to turn our focus onto them and to prioritise getting them well. We assume the mantle of committed loving parent; steadfast, loyal partner; the hero battling against all odds to save the other from themselves. Yet often our efforts to help end up enabling their addiction and the honest truth that underlies this help is far less altruistic. We feel horrendously vulnerable. It’s important to fix the other so that we can feel physically and emotionally safe. Yet when our longing for the addict/alcoholic in our life to get well means we’re more invested in their recovery than they are, we set ourselves up for a painful roller-coaster of hope and disappointment.

It turns out though that when we commit to professional help for ourselves, we create the best chance of breaking the relational dysfunction that traps everybody in the addiction and this kick-starts the process of recovery for all concerned.

Family members often say "but I’m not the one with the problem". To that I say, "aren’t you?" If you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you are struggling with the way you feel about living with, and loving the addict or alcoholic in your life. Already you’ve embarked on a journey during which you are going to meet parts of yourself that you find difficult. It’s likely you’ll need to look at how you love and find a different way which seems counter-intuitive and challenging. You may meet overwhelming guilt and shame in both yourself and the other, struggle with forgiveness and your own resentment.  In your anger and frustration, you might even become abusive yourself. Your own ability to be honest will be challenged as will your relationship with life and even death. You may need to tolerate being hated. Think you can do this alone? Very many can’t.

Find a therapist with whom you can share this journey of difficulty and dilemma; who will come alongside empathically and gently challenge you to acknowledge parts of yourself you’ve never allowed before.  They will help you find compassion, acceptance and forgiveness for yourself. You can say the unspeakable without fear of judgement or leakage. You can explore your vision of a better future, create new choices and find peace with the past.  Therapy is about helping you unblock the thoughts, feelings and beliefs which keep you stuck in dysfunctional relationship freeing you to move towards the life you really want.

Try a Fellowship organisation such as Codependents Anonymous or Al Anon, Alateen or ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics). These are confidential organisations in which people with similar experiences to you come together to support each other. They operate on a voluntary subscription basis making them financially accessible to everyone and they meet both face-to-face and online. You’re likely to find friendship and understanding without judgement or unwanted advice. You’ll see yourself through others and know you are not alone. You’ll find inspiration and hope there too.

If your loved one goes to rehab and they run family groups, sign up. Not only will you find understanding and empathy for all you’ve been through, they often include revealing talks about how an addict/alcoholic experiences the world. These can shed new light; not only on their behaviour but also on yours as well.

When as family members we seek help, we transform our own difficult journey into an experience that has value and meaning and we model recovery to our loved one. We cannot force the other to get well, but we can recover our self and that helps us to make better decisions. Perhaps one of the most loving and life-saving, is to allow ourselves to grow and the other space to choose their own path.  

Judy Wilson-Smith is a verified Welldoing counsellor in Saffron Walden and online


Further reading

My partner's drinking worries me – how can I talk to them?

Addiction: a psychoanalytic cure

How to tell your loved ones about your issues with alcohol

How I switched one addiction for another, and how I recovered

When does watching porn become a problem?