Mary Howard couldn’t understand what was happening to her husband, Mac. At first, she didn’t realize she was married to an addict.
“What sticks out in my mind is how he was a functioning addict and how he hid it well,” Mary says in “From Meth Addict to Ministry.” “He went to church and ran a successful carpentry business. The last two years of his addiction — when he started using meth — was when I knew something bad was happening.”
If you, too, are grappling with your spouse’s addiction and aren’t sure what to do, Dr. Gregory Jantz offers guidance. He’s a chemical dependency counselor, a licensed mental health counselor and author of Healing the Scars of Addiction. This article, excerpted from When a Loved One Is Addicted: How to offer hope and help, provides advice not just for spouses who are addicted, but for any loved one.
A heartbreaking situation
Watching a loved one succumb to addiction is heartbreaking. It’s disorienting, like being trapped in a carnival hall of mirrors, and helping your loved one can seem impossible.
No matter what your story is, and no matter how convinced you are that there is no way out of the addiction maze, know this: God’s healing grace is undiminished. You can be free of the harmful effects of a loved one’s addiction.
How can you help your loved one?
You have likely been asking an extremely important question for months, years or even decades: How can I help my loved one?
The details of my response to you will depend, to some extent, on the state of mind of the person with the addiction. Hopefully, your loved one is willing to admit there is an addiction problem and recognizes that change is needed. It’s also possible that he or she is not yet willing to acknowledge the problem. Denial has taken root, and the person does not see the need for professional help.
Regardless of his or her current belief, the road ahead will not be easy. Recovering from addiction is not a straightforward matter of simply stopping the damaging behavior. In fact, even under the best of circumstances, recovery is often a matter of three steps forward and two steps back.
Remind yourself of the truth
One of the most painful aspects of loving someone with an addiction is the feeling that you are powerless to help. The flip side of this coin — and equally painful — is the feeling that it is somehow within your power to “fix” your loved one, coupled with the experience of failing at that task over and over again. The truth that you need to remind yourself often is this:
- “I didn’t cause this addiction.”
- “I can’t cure it.”
- “I can’t control it.”
Understanding and accepting these three powerful truths will help you as you consider your role in the recovery and healing of the addict you care about. And yet, while you cannot make your loved one change — or engage in recovery for them — there are things you can do to encourage and instigate change.
Indeed, your love and support in their life can be a significant factor. Even with the delicacy involved in addiction and recovery, your involvement may be the difference between life and death for someone you love.
Practice self-care if you’re married to an addict
Truly, some of the best advice I can offer you is to first take care of yourself. This may come as a surprise and may even sound selfish, but think of it this way: What do airline attendants say when they recite the emergency protocols prior to takeoff? “First, put on your own mask, then help the child or elderly person next to you with their own.” That’s because it’s far more difficult to help a less-capable person when you’re incapacitated yourself.
As the addict continually makes and breaks promises to herself and others, you may experience feelings of anger, frustration, guilt, betrayal and — as the lengthy battle continues — sheer exhaustion. Meanwhile, you may become so preoccupied with the desperate battle that you’re unaware that your own health and well-being are deteriorating.
Signs of caregiver burnout
So I want you to be aware of the common signs of caregiver burnout. The Mayo Clinic suggests these nine signs to watch for:
- Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried.
- Often feeling tired.
- Too little or too much sleep.
- Gaining or losing weight.
- Becoming easily irritated or angry.
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed.
- Frequent headaches or other physical ailments.
- Depression and/or anxiety.
To this list, I would add feelings of embarrassment over your situation and feelings of hopelessness. You may find yourself troubled over what your friends and acquaintances must be thinking and suffering the darkness of despair, as though this affliction will never end. Now is the time to stand strong against burnout by planting this standard in the forefront of your mind: It is neither selfish nor negligent of me to first take care of myself.
You must maintain sound physical, mental and emotional health to better enjoy life despite this ongoing battle — and to better help your loved one face up to and eventually conquer addiction. In Beyond Addiction: How science and kindness help people change, the authors explain the importance of self-care:
“How can you accept your loved one until she stops what she is doing? One way is to have your wellbeing not wholly depend on her, and by devoting energy to something outside of your concerns for her. When you take care of yourself, you build strength to both tolerate what you can’t change and change what you can. At the same time, as a calmer, happier person, you will be contributing to an atmosphere that is conductive to the change you hope to see in your loved one, and you will be modeling healthy behaviors you wish for in your loved one.”
To help you overcome the inevitable stresses and prevent harmful burnout, begin today to make the following three practices a non-negotiable part of your life.
1. Make your health and well-being a priority
Eat nourishing meals and stay hydrated with plenty of water throughout the day. Take a good multivitamin and mineral supplement, while limiting coffee, sugar and processed foods.
Get outdoor exercise: Walk, run, bike or hike 20 to 30 minutes, breathing deeply and enjoying the sun’s natural vitamin D. Add some weight-bearing exercises such as push-ups, crunches, squats and bicep curls to keep your muscles toned.
Some days, your situation may make you feel so weary and discouraged that self-care is the last thing you want to think about. But here’s the secret: Such downtimes are when focused self-care is most needed and will do you the most good. So memorize and declare Philippians 4:13: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
2. Maintain activities that replenish you
If you’re not careful, dealing with an addicted loved one can preoccupy you to the extent that you forget about the activities that used to bring you relaxation and joy. Helping your loved one does not mean giving up your own life. A big part of healthy self-care is keeping your own life going, continuing those activities that invigorate you and make you smile.
Take a moment to identify in writing at least five activities that bring you joy. Going to a movie? Lunch with friends? It could be a massage or manicure, a hike in the hills, a day at the museum or the zoo, a picnic at the park, or volunteering at your church or a local non-profit. Then begin scheduling these activities and following through. Maintaining your enjoyments is not selfish; it is vital to your well-being.
3. Enlist the support of others
Living with addiction can make you feel isolated and alone. But all around you is a healthy array of people who are going through what you’re facing. Studies have shown that social support can help you build resilience against stress and provide you with practical ideas for dealing with your loved one.
Do not hesitate to reach out to a counselor, pastor, or mentor for ongoing help and advice. This person can also refer you to relevant support groups that allow caregivers to voice their concerns and encourage one another. Both individual counseling and group support can give you healthy outlets to process your emotions and strengthen you for the challenges ahead.
Don’t enable your loved one
Family and friends of addicts often do things that might appear, on the surface, to be compassionate. But in reality, those actions are fueling their loved one’s addiction. These actions include things such as:
- Lying to your spouse’s boss about why he or she called in sick.
- Picking up the slack at home so you don’t have to confront your loved one about neglecting responsibilities.
- Not taking care of yourself because you are so busy caring for someone who won’t take care of herself.
- Embracing a role as self-designated worrier or protector.
It’s true that well-meaning family members frequently perpetuate their struggling loved one’s problem through enabling actions. In short, enabling means doing things for a person that he would and could do for himself if he weren’t mired in addiction. Anything you do that protects the addict from the consequences of his actions could be allowing him to deny the problem or delay a decision to get help.
Therefore, it’s in his best interest to keep responsibilities on his shoulders and avoid shielding him from consequences. This involves the decision to show tough love by not aiding or abetting them in their addiction. This is not an easy task, as it defies your natural impulses. Your instinct is to help, but sometimes your attempts at helping end up hurting the troubled individual.
Enabling removes the natural consequences that will likely result from an addict’s choices. Professionals warn against enabling because evidence shows that addicts who experience the painful consequences of their addiction have the most powerful incentive to change their lifestyle. It often takes “hitting rock bottom” for addicts to recognize that change is indeed necessary.
Use five strategies to end enabling
While enablers see their good intentions as the easy way out initially, desperation eventually sets in and the demands of addiction become burdensome over time. The family and friendship dynamics typically become skewed, with the sober loved ones increasingly taking on more responsibility and the addict increasingly bearing less responsibility.
This builds resentment on both sides, as addicts expect that the overly responsible members will continue to compensate for the addict’s ongoing irresponsibility.
To correct this imbalance, enablers must learn new coping mechanisms and ways of communicating with their struggling loved one. Consider these five strategies:
1. Stop doing anything that supports the person’s current lifestyle
Are you allowing your family member to skip out on household chores and responsibilities? Are you working and paying bills that he would be paying if he hadn’t lost his job or missed work time? Are you providing free food and shelter, even when the person should be paying his fair share? If so, you are providing a “safety net” that allows him to continue his addiction with no real consequences.
2. Refuse to cover up or make excuses for the person
You might give rationales for why the addicted person can’t attend family get-togethers or holiday parties (“She’s feeling too sick to come”). You might whitewash rude or erratic behavior (“He’s been under so much stress lately”). You might gloss over missed appointments or obligations (“I know she feels bad about it, but she’s been incredibly busy”).
Helping to conceal the true behavior is not helping at all. That’s because, once again, you are colluding to allow the person to escape consequences — and hard consequences are likely what is needed to shake your loved one out of denial.
3. Do not give or loan money
Financial strain — especially if it’s prolonged and desperate — is one of the consequences that can cause an addicted person to face reality. If you are providing money for any reason, you could be enabling the very behavior you want to end.
Setting financial limits might mean refusing to cosign loans, lend the person your own money, or pay bills to avoid repossession or eviction. It might mean looking for separate living arrangements or involve a promise that no more money is forthcoming. Whatever the step, it’s an important one to take. When addictions become too expensive to maintain and funding sources are hard to come by, your loved one might finally get the help she needs.
4. Don’t “rescue” the person when difficult consequences occur
Rushing in to rescue the person may satisfy your desire to feel needed or helpful, but it doesn’t really help the situation. It only cushions the blow or softens the landing for poor choices. In Al-Anon, they call it “putting pillows under them” so that the addict never feels the pain of mistakes.
5. Set boundaries and stick to them
Family members often resort to saying things like,“If you don’t quit drinking, I’ll leave!” Or, “If you continue to use pornography, I’ll ask you to live somewhere else.” Or, “You’ve gambled away your car payment, and I’m not going to bail you out this time.”
All of these are valid statements, but they are only idle, hollow threats unless you follow through with the “or else” part of the equation. You can’t control whether someone seeks help for an addiction but you can decide what kind of behavior you will or will not accept in your life.
What are boundaries?
Personal boundaries are the physical, emotional and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used or violated by others. With boundaries, you are less likely to become entangled in the chaos of addiction, you will maintain order and dignity, and avoid emotional roller-coaster rides. Here are examples of boundaries:
“No drugs or alcohol are allowed around me or in the house.” Let your loved one know what substances are acceptable and unacceptable in the home. Then clearly explain the consequences if he or she violates those boundaries. Will you force her to find somewhere else to stay if she’s been drinking? Will you notify the police if you find drugs in his room?
“I will not tolerate insults or put-downs.” You have the right to expect to be treated with respect by others, including the addicted individual. In this way, you no longer sacrifice your self-worth. Re-establish the self-respect and integrity that you deserve, and that your family deserves, by defining what is acceptable language and behavior.
“I will not give you any more money, whether it is to pay a bill, buy you food or put gas in your vehicle.” By setting the boundary to no longer financially support your loved one, you are focusing on your own well-being and mental health. You are also forcing him to take responsibility. Setting boundaries won’t cure the addiction or control an addicted person, but they safeguard your mental health, physical well-being and finances.
“I will not lie or cover for you anymore, regardless of the circumstances.” The disease of addiction thrives in chaos and lies. Set boundaries that will help remove you from the mayhem and force your loved one to take ownership in his or her actions and behaviors.
“If you need an answer right now, the answer is no.” Addicts have a way of manipulating any situation. Oftentimes, this includes putting unnecessary stress and pressure on family members to make important decisions immediately. Most important decisions take time and prayer. If the addict in your life demands an answer, simply tell him or her no.
For more help
- If you’re married to an addict, find more advice in When a Loved One Is Addicted: How to offer hope and help, by Gregory Jantz.
- For free consultation and counseling referrals, call Focus on the Family’s Counseling Department at 1-855-771-HELP (4357) on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain Time).
- Use the Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselor Network to search for licensed Christian counselors in your area.
- Consider finding an Al-Anon chapter for support. Al-Anon members are people worried about someone with a drinking problem.