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How to Help an Addicted Family Member (and Help Yourself Too)

How to Help an Addicted Family Member (and Help Yourself Too)

Did you know that there are an estimated 8.3 million children in the U.S. who are currently living with someone who is a drug addict or an alcoholic? That’s around 1 child in every 8. If you include those that are grandchildren, it’s worse – around 1 in 7. For those living with an addicted family member suffering with either a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) or an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), life under the same roof can very difficult indeed, with a whole range of emotions – from love to anxiety to frustration to anger, even hate – just bubbling under the surface of every single day.

The truth most families eventually discover is that no one can cure another person’s addiction. Only addicts can do that for themselves.” Beverly Conyers, American addiction recovery author

For a young child, dealing with these feelings can be highly stressful, and near impossible to process. As these young children grow older, their own risk of substance addiction later in life increases significantly. In fact, the children of alcoholics are as much as 4 times more likely to abuse alcohol in the future than those whose parents are not alcoholics. And remember, for others in the family – fathers, mothers, older siblings, and grandparents – it can be equally as tough. It literally does feel like you are walking on eggshells in your own home, waiting for something to finally crack and allow all those intense, heartfelt emotions to come shooting to the fore. Sometimes, the damage done when this happens to already strained family relationships can be impossible to repair. However, this guide will help you by offering sound, practical advice provided by experienced addiction specialists. We’ll cover a whole range of topics that are not only intended to educate you about the unseen dynamics and possible dangers of having an addict within the family, but also how to deal with that loved one in a compassionate, but practical way. addiction

Know the Warning Signs of Substance Abuse

The very nature of addiction means that those who are suffering from it will attempt to hide its presence and influence in their lives. Therefore, actually understanding that a family member is abusing drugs or alcohol can be a long road of self-realization and acknowledgement in itself. Not only will you find 9 clear warning signs of addiction below, you can also take our short 20-question quiz: “Is Your Family Member Addicted to Drugs?” that can help you determine if your loved one is suffering from SUD or AUD.

9 Clear Warning Signs of Addiction

#1. Secrecy: With time, and as their substance misuse and abuse continues unabated, drug addicts and alcoholics develop an urgent sense of secrecy around all aspects of their addiction (and, so, in most other aspects of their life too). They’ll go to great, and sometimes obscure lengths to hide their substance abuse from their parents, other family members, job bosses, teachers, and their friends.  Examples of excessive secrecy include:

  • Avoiding / deflecting when you ask questions
  • Defensiveness
  • Hiding (even encrypting) their cell phone
  • Erasing text messages or phone calls / logs
  • Locking you out / denying entry to their room or vehicle
  • Leaving without being open about where they’re going
  • Seeing new friends that they keep away from you

#2: Dishonesty: Lying or hiding the truth, in other words. When a family member is using and abusing substances – alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription meds, etc. – they are absolutely going to lie, deceive and manipulate the truth. For them, lying to protect their substance abuse (and, in doing so, let it continue as before) is of far higher importance than deceiving you. Another clear example of the power of addiction. A drug user or an alcoholic will often:

  • Defiantly and vehemently deny any accusations, even when it is clear to all
  • Feign sickness
  • Play on your sympathies
  • Make up questionable or obviously untrue stories
  • Offer just a “part” of the truth
  • Complicate things in an attempt to confuse or fool you
  • Make up reasons to begin arguments / fight as a way to distract you

#3: Appearance & Personal Hygiene Changes: When a person is abusing substances, the importance of everything else pales significantly in comparison. A clear physical sign of this is the way they appear to others. A substance abuser may:

  • Not bathe regularly or wear deodorant
  • Stop combing their hair and / or brush their teeth
  • Wear the same dirty clothes for days in a row
  • Show signs of a rapid or excessive weight loss OR gain

#4: Unpredictable Mood Swings or Irregular Energy Levels: A person abusing substances can be up one moment and then way down the next, with little or no correlation with what is actually going on around them. These mood swings and changes in their level of energy are often characterized by:

  • Irritability
  • Manic hyperactivity
  • Extreme talkativeness
  • Inability to sit still
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Heightened anxiety
  • Depression
  • Aggression
  • Paranoia

#5: General Loss of Interest in Hobbies / Activities: One of the most powerful and dangerous aspects of an addiction is its ability to become your primary focus above all else – frighteningly, your reason for being. An alcoholic or a drug addict cares about their next drink, their next “high,” and nothing else. Virtually every waking moment is spent thinking about the drug, figuring out how to get it, and then using it. This unnatural, addiction-induced focus means that the hobbies and activities once enjoyed by the individual concerned are clearly of little or no importance now. Furthermore, substance addiction will disrupt the brain’s production of dopamine – the neurotransmitter that is responsible for feelings of pleasure. Therefore, a substance abuser will reach a point where they are unable to experience any pleasure except when they are under the influence of the substance they’re using. The substance has literally hijacked their brain to the point that being high or drunk is literally the only possible thing that will make them happy. Consequently, it is the only thing that the person cares about. #6: Financial Problems & Theft: Probably the most obvious sign you will begin to notice is that the family member starts to experience financial problems – being overdrawn and a lack of available cash, for example. Regardless of your financial independence or personal wealth, addiction is an expensive disease. An addict will literally spend every cent they have to get the drug or alcohol they crave, and then they will sell whatever they can to be able to pay for it too. An obvious (and sad) example of this is an addict who turns to prostitution and sells their body… If the individual lives alone, their bills will go unpaid, food doesn’t get bought, their utilities may get turned off, and their car may even be repossessed. They will knowingly write checks that will bounce, and they may take out several “payday” loans. Whatever you may believe currently, this is by no means their choice. This is their drug-addicted, dopamine-starved brain controlling their thought processes, and compelling them, forcing them even, to do whatever it takes to get the next hit, the next pill or line, or the next drink. Again, the power of addiction. Eventually, when they have exhausted all of their own resources, they will look at you (yes, they will) and other family members as a direct source of funding their addiction. They may do this by:

  • Borrowing money but never paying it back
  • Making up excuses (or lying) to get money, eg. pay a bill or fix their car
  • Using others credit cards or forging checks from their bank accounts
  • Theft, eg. taking money from wallets or purses of family members
  • Stealing valuables to sell them on, eg. jewelry, electronics, etc.


#7: Signs of Being High or Drunk: This may seem unnecessary, but the effects of an addiction can show themselves in a variety of ways, depending on the individual. Knowing how to spot the signs of intoxication for different drug types can also help identify an underlying problem. Alcohol intoxication common indicators include:

  • Poor motor coordination 
  • Slurred speech 
  • Reduced inhibitions and reasoning ability
  • Increase in risk-taking behavior 
  • Impaired judgment 
  • Confusion, anxiety, restlessness 
  • Reduced heart rate, blood pressure and breathing

Stimulant intoxication common indicators include:

  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing
  • Rapid movements, thoughts, and speaking
  • Oral fixations like clenching the jaw repeatedly
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased alertness
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia

Opioid intoxication common indicators include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Euphoria
  • Slowed breathing
  • Pinpoint pupils

#8: Drug Paraphernalia: Family members that have substance abuse issues will have various items of drug paraphernalia, used for getting high. Common pieces of drug paraphernalia you may find in their bedroom or other places in the house include hookahs, roach clips, rolling papers, pipes, tin foil, needles, baggies and cellophane. Sign #9: Addicts Experience Withdrawal Symptoms Regularly: One of the clearest signs of an addiction is that the individual will experience withdrawal symptoms (to varying degrees) without recent use of their substance of choice. Some of the most common withdrawal symptoms that addicts will tend to go through after not using for quite a while, regardless of substance, are digestive issues, such as diarrhea or constipation, anxiety and / or depression, flu-like symptoms, and body tremors.


Your Complete Guide to Helping an Addicted Family Member

So, those are the things you should really try to avoid doing. Now let’s get to the ways you can really help your loved one break this substance abuse cycle that is spiralling them downwards to an uncertain and risk-laden future.

Understand How Powerful Addiction Can Be

Addiction is defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) as: “A chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain. It is considered both a complex brain disorder and a mental illness. Addiction is the most severe form of a full spectrum of substance use disorders, and is a medical illness caused by repeated misuse of a substance or substances.”  However, it is important to remember that, although the disease of addiction has no cure, it is treatable, as with the majority of chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes. Those suffering with a substance addiction are unable to stop their abuse as they suffer intense physical and mental cravings for the substance involved. Therefore, to achieve a long-lasting recovery, the addicted patient needs to remain 100% abstinent from the substance involved. You may have also noticed, in the NIDA’s definition of addiction, the following phrase – “long-lasting changes in the brain.” Substance abuse will eventually lead to actual physical changes in the brain’s neurotransmitters, and how they respond and function. In reality, this means that addicts are far more likely to submit to their constant cravings for the substance involved in their abuse. Furthermore, because of this alteration in brain response and function, addicts are far more likely to engage in risky and reckless behavior, which often manifests in substance polyabuse – the abuse of more than one drug – increasing the likelihood of a drug overdose.

How Families Increase the Likelihood of Addiction Recovery 

Did you know that medical research has proven conclusively that when an alcoholic or a drug addict has the full support of their family when undergoing treatment and, afterwards, during the early stages of recovery, that individual has a significantly increased chance of success, and is far less likely to relapse? Therefore, the more you can do to support and encourage your addicted family member, as directly opposed to responding negatively, the better for them – and the better for you and your family.

The Most Effective “Do’s” & “Do Not’s” of Family Involvement

Every family’s situation is unique; however, there are some simple guidelines* that every family member needs to take onboard on how you approach your family’s involvement – it is very important that all of these are used with absolute consistency when dealing with the substance abuser: Do:

  • Focus on building trust with the individual (this will have been damaged because of the addiction)
  • Be 100% honest with the individual
  • Always respect their privacy

Do Not:

  • Threaten the individual, eg. “If you don’t stop this, you have to leave.”
  • Criticize – this is extremely important, as all addicts naturally suffer from self-guilt about how their addiction has affected the family
  • Expect immediate change – any addiction recovery is a long process

*These extremely important yet simple guidelines are discussed in more detail later in this article.

The Difficulties You Will Regularly Face

Because of the very nature of a substance addiction, you will regularly be presented with difficulties. It’s important to understand this, and understand why these difficulties may be happening. Addiction recovery requires a great deal of self-determination and willpower to pursue and be successful – qualities that an addict, because of their basic nature or caused by the addiction itself, will not possess much of. Here are a few of the more common reasons this will not be an easy process:

  • The addict does not recognize or agree that they have a problem
  • The addict does not want to change what they are doing
  • The addict fears the possible consequences of seeking treatment, e.g., stopping their abuse, losing their job, or even going to prison
  • The addict feels embarrassed by their situation, and does not want to accept it or discuss it with you
  • The addict feels awkward about discussing personal issues with you or a professional
  • The addict is engaging in the addiction as a way to avoid dealing with or self-medicating another problem, eg. depression, anxiety or a mental disorder, that is actually troubling them more


The Positive Steps You Can Take Today to Help an Addicted Family Member

Now that you have an improved understanding of what you as a family member are up against when helping an addicted family member, here are the positive steps you can take to assist them with their disease – steps which will also assist you in dealing with this difficult situation without hurting, even damaging your own health, both physical and mental. Furthermore, please remember that help is available for you too – should you need it. Always try to keep in mind, if you can, the oxygen masks that fall down when a plane is in difficulties – put yours on before you attempt to help anyone else with theirs.

Step 1: Trust – Establish & Maintain

If you are to be successful in your efforts to help and deal with the addicted member of your family, you first need to establish a level of trust between you both. Clearly, any previous trust that existed will have been tested to the absolute limit with the actions of the addict. In some cases, any trust may have completely disappeared. The onus now falls on you to instigate its rebuilding, with both honesty, courtesy and understanding. To help you to achieve a more trusting relationship now, avoid the following actions in a consistent way:

  • Avoid criticizing and lecturing the addicted family member
  • Avoid shouting and arguing – keep calm (as difficult as that may be)
  • Avoid resorting to addictive behaviors yourself, however moderate – yes, it’s hypocritical

Know an Addict’s Thought Processes:

Consider the following: Addiction affects (and even restructures) an addict’s brain – their way of thinking, their cognitive ability, and how they react and respond to any given situation. They will, therefore, likely feel that you are making an attempt to control them – reassure them that everything is in their best interest. It is highly possible their addictive behavior is an attempt to medicate themselves, eg. to control stress, to feel more confident, or to deal with a mental disorder of some kind. Reassure them that finding treatment will help resolve these issues too. You, personally, cannot cure an addict, even if it’s someone you love and care for. Those with substance abuse disorders require professional medical treatment – you should always try to discuss this with the addict. For them, it is the only way.

Step 2: Your Health Comes First

The situation within your family, although increasingly more common in U.S. households, is not a normal one. It will create a great deal of stress and other difficult feelings for all members of a family. Therefore, think oxygen mask. Accept that you are going through a highly stressful situation and that you need help in managing this stress. Your physical and mental health and well-being comes first.

Step 3: The Power of Good Communication

No addict gets clean and sober without truly wanting an end to their vicious spiral of addictive behavior. Sadly, it’s why many take their own lives – their addiction seems to them too powerful a self-destructive cycle to break. Therefore, informing your addicted family member that their disorder is a serious issue for the whole family, and that they need to get treatment, will pretty much fall on deaf ears. That said, they are far more likely to be positive about treatment if you communicate honestly and openly with them, in a non-threatening way, and with your 100% support in what the future may bring.

Step 4: Educate Yourself

Lastly, by treating the entire subject of substance addiction as something to be learned about and fully understood, you will not only be helping your addicted family member by being better placed to understand their disease, but, just as importantly, you will also be helping yourself.  Learning all you can about addiction will allay any fears you may have over the unknown, and to help you to understand the whole treatment process, from detox to rehab (and all the available therapies and support you’ll find there) to the ongoing support available once your loved one has left the facility where they’ve been treated. Yes, the journey to recovery from addiction can be long and difficult, but it is one that offers the lasting peace and positive sense of self that sobriety brings, and that has been missing so clearly from someone’s life. Finally, and importantly, it’s a journey you can share together.