How to Support an Addict

Unless you’re confronted with a situation where your loved one or close friend is struggling with addiction, you’ve likely never thought much about how to support an addict. Why would you? But for millions of people in the U.S., addiction is a very real disease that affects not only the addict, but the entire family. And there’s a lot of misconception about how and when and what to do to support the addict.

Let’s take the mystery out of it. Here are some tips on how you can best support an addict – whether it’s your son or daughter that’s hooked on illicit drugs, your wife or husband who’s been abusing alcohol and cocaine, even your elderly parents who are addicted to prescription painkillers.

Educate Yourselves

You can’t be much help or support to an addict if you’re in the dark about his or her disease. The first step in supporting the addict is to learn as much as you can about alcoholism, substance abuse, co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorder, process addictions like compulsive gambling, sex and shopping, overwork, and eating disorders.

One thing you’ll learn right away is that the addict can’t help him or herself. It’s not a switch that can be turned off easily. In fact, after months and years of chronic abuse, the human brain is changed to the point where the individual is rewired, so to speak, to an obsessive and compulsive need for the substance (or compulsive behavior).

Be exhaustive in your research. Look up everything you can online. Buy or borrow from the library books on the subject. Study the materials until you feel you have a good grounding in the particular addiction.

Does the Addict Want to Change?

A key determination in how you support an addict involves the person’s willingness and desire to change. If he or she is adamantly against giving up the addiction, there’s nothing you can do to change that. This is a decision that has to come from the addict.

You can, if things get really out of control, arrange for an intervention. This is a process, conducted by trained interventionists, where the addict is confronted by family and friends and, led by the interventionist, encouraged to enter treatment. The desired result is that the addict agrees to go into treatment, and is immediately whisked off by the interventionist to pre-arranged treatment at a residential addiction treatment or rehab facility. Sometimes, however, the addict refuses help. It’s just not the right time, and he or she is simply not receptive to receiving help.

The fact is that, if your loved one is 18 or older, he or she cannot be forced into treatment, unless it is ordered by the court, usually as part of a sentence.

If the addict expresses a desire to change, this is where you can spring into action. Now, all your research will come into play. If you haven’t already, it’s time to check out available treatment programs.

Treatment Options

For many families, money is tight. That should never stand in the way of getting the best treatment available for your loved one. There are financing options, financial assistance in the form of pay-as-you-go, sliding-pay scale, or scholarships or grants that may be available. Federal, state, and local financial assistance may also be possible.

During your research into the disease of addiction and, specifically, the type of addiction your loved one suffers from, you undoubtedly came across websites for residential treatment faciities. This is one way to go.

Another is to check out the Treatment Facility Locator (, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). This is a searchable database of more than 11,000 drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs around the country. The locator listings include residential treatment centers, outpatient treatment programs, and hospital inpatient programs for drug addiction and alcoholism. There are listings and treatment programs in the locator for marijuana, cocaine, and heroin addiction, as well as alcohol and drug treatment programs for adults and adolescents. You can also call their toll-free treatment referral helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.

An excellent resource, the Treatment Facility Locator offers the ability for you to find facilities that take clients with no insurance coverage. Use Detailed Search or List Search and check the boxes for “sliding fee scale” and “payment assistance.” Then call the facilities directly to determine their policy.

While you’re checking out facilities that are near where you live, be sure to compare their primary focus, services they provide, type of care (residential short-term treatment of 30 days or less, residential long-term treatment beyond 30 days, outpatient, partial hospitalization/day treatment, etc., special programs/groups (such as co-occurring substance abuse and mental disorders, persons with HIV/AIDS, gays, lesbians, women, men, seniors, adolescents, etc.), and special language services.

Find several that seem appropriate or that you’d like to explore further. Then, check out their websites or contact the facility directly. All the pertinent information is listed in the locator.

Armed with this information, you’ll be better prepared if your loved one says he or she is ready to go into treatment. Your support and encouragment is crucial in helping your loved one take the next step.

When the Addict Goes Into Treatment

Just because your loved one goes into treatment, that’s not the end of your support. Rather, it’s just the beginning. During his or her treatment program, continue to learn as much as you can about the disease.

If family treatment is part of your loved one’s treatment plan, take part in it. That’s because addiction affects each and every member of the family. Your loved one can’t go through treatment and return home to the same situation and circumstances which may have exacerbated or enabled addiction in the first place. Yes, family treatment is usually an extra-cost service, but it is well worth it to give your loved one the best chance possible at successful recovery.

Many times there are other family members who also abuse certain substances. Alcohol and drug abuse in the home, if it continues, will almost definitely result in your loved one’s relapse sooner rather than later following completion of treatment. So, if there are other problems with substance abuse or compulsive behavior, you need to get these taken care of before your loved one returns home.

When its appropriate and your loved one’s therapist recommends it, be sure to visit him or her during treatment. The early phase of active treatment is the roughest. That’s when he or she will beg you to allow them to come home. Be loving but firm and insist that treatment be completed. Your loved one may rail against you, calling you names, shouting that you don’t care – but that’s all the addiction talking. It takes time for behavior to change. Simply getting detoxed won’t cut it. Without counseling and group meetings to learn coping techniques and therapy to change ingrained behavior, coming home prematurely will do nothing to help your loved one overcome addiction.

Preparations for Homecoming

While your loved one is in the final phase of treatment, he or she is creating a recovery plan with the help of the therapist. Now is the time for you to get the house ready for your loved one’s return.

This means you need to ensure the house is “clean,” – free of all alcohol and drugs.

Be ready for a change of schedules as well, since the addict, once home, will need to attend further counseling (if required) and participate in regular 12-step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, and so on.

Things won’t go back to the way they were. That’s the last thing you – or your loved one – should expect or want. Life in recovery will be different. It has to be, in order for it to be effective.

Plan for this, and do so with an open mind and heart, and a willingness to be supportive and encouraging from here on out.

Understand that there will be good days and bad days. Some days, your loved one may seem to sail along with no problems. Other days, a crisis at work or school or home – whether major or minor – will seem to completely derail your loved one. It’s at this time when he or she will need not only your support, but that of his or her 12-step sponsor and network.

Get Involved

Think this is all too much for you to handle? That’s a normal reaction. Addiction is a complex disease, and everyone involved with the addict goes through a lot. You need help and support as well. Fortunately, there are family component groups of the various 12-step groups that offer just such support.

Join one. First, check them out. There may be several different meeting locations. Experts advise that you visit several, but give a group at least six visits before you make up your mind that it’s not for you.

What kind of meetings are these? They’re for the family members and close friends of addicts. There’s Co-Anon, for family members of addicts; Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA); Nar-Anon, for friends and family members of addicts; Al-Anon/Alateen, for friends and family members of alcoholics; Families Anonymous, for friends and family of addicts; Gam-Anon/Gam-A-Teen, for friends and family members of problem gamblers, and so on.

What happens at these meetings? Let’s take Co-Anon, for example. Co-Anon Family Groups are a fellowship of men and women who are husbands and wives, parents, relatives, or close friends of someone who is chemically dependent. If you are seeking a solution to problems that come from living with a practicing or recovering cocaine addict, Co-Anon can help you. Other 12-step family groups are similar. Members support and help each other by sharing their experiences, wisdom, and strength. Through weekly meetings, members educate themselves and learn new and appropriate methods of dealing with their friend or loved one who is an addict.

Best advice is to find a 12-step family group that works for you, that feels right, and that you can commit to attending. You will find that the encouragement, unswerving support, and fellowship you receive at these meetings will help you immensely. There is no burden so heavy that it cannot be lifted through the support of your fellow 12-step family group members. Just listening to others talk about their issues, challenges, and successes will spark ideas for ways that you can tackle your own.

Give it Time

It may be painful to realize, but it’s important to understand that the healing process that your loved one began in treatment will take some time. For some in recovery, it may take many months or years, while others may quickly come up to speed and fall into the rhythm of meetings and self-care.

Of course, there is no black and white, no one scenario that fits everyone in recovery. Your loved one may go along fine for a while and then suffer relapse. Or, he or she may have problems adjusting right from the start. In any case, your ongoing love and support will be crucial in helping your loved one navigate the early days of recovery.

Don’t forget yourself in the process. You need to take care of your physical and emotional needs as well. Make sure you get adequate rest, eat nutritious and well-balanced meals, get plenty of exercise. Go out and have a good time with your friends. Take trips. Do things together with the family. Recovery doesn’t mean that you need to subject yourself and others in the family to endless drudgery, self-deprivation, and repetitive tasks.

The Future in Recovery

Recovery – for your loved one and for the family – is what you make it. Encourage your loved one to pursue dreams, to create short- and long-term goals in support of those dreams. Make sure he or she knows that you will always be there for him or her. Your love is not conditional to any timetable or achievement. You want what is best and right for your loved one – the opportunity to enjoy life, to love and be loved, to be happy and healthy and prosperous in sobriety.

How do you support an addict? Hopefully now you have a better idea.