Their Problem Or Yours?
Being a family member or loved one of someone with an addiction is an incredibly painful and difficult experience. It frequently brings up a huge amount of conflicted feelings: anger and frustration over the addicted person's apparent unwillingness or inability to change; sadness and despair over what has been lost in the relationship; fear that things will never improve; powerlessness and hopelessness over wanting to help but not knowing how to do so; and the love and compassion that come along with the desire to help. Whenever someone is experiencing addiction, it creates problems not just for them but for the people around them. As a family member, part of the difficulty in supporting and helping someone in addiction is separating out the problems that it causes for them from the problems it causes for you. This section will aim to address ways in which you can separate out these problems and what you can do about them. This is important, because sometimes addressing the problems that someone else's addiction creates for you requires a different response from addressing their problems, and being able to identify this will help you remain emotionally healthy and able to support your loved one.
Throughout this page, I tend to use the term 'family member' for simplicity, but everything I'm writing about here applies whether you are a family member, colleague, friend or just someone who cares about an addicted person in your life.
Problems For People In Addiction
The problems that addiction creates for the person experiencing addiction are well known. Addiction can contribute to anxiety and depression. It can contribute to people becoming unhappy, irritable or aggressive. It can create financial problems. It can create physical health problems as a person pays less attention to their body's needs for exercise, good nutrition and sleep. It can cause people to become withdrawn, isolated, and socially anxious. It can lead to reduced motivation, and difficulty concentrating or remaining focused on other activities.
As a family member or friend, you are likely well aware of some of the problems that addiction is creating for someone in your life. However, that person may not be as aware of those problems or may see them as less important or significant than you do. This leads to the very common situation with addictions where people enter treatment or seek counselling on the urging of family members or friends only to drop out shortly afterwards and return to addiction. Unless someone wants to change for their own sake, they will not be able to overcome addiction.
Unfortunately, we humans are remarkably resistant to change. It's really important to be aware that in any change, there are benefits and costs to changing our behaviour, and there are costs and benefits to carrying on the way we are. For example, a benefit of carrying on a gaming addiction might be that I don't have to think about my stressful job, and a cost of carrying on the addiction is that I am not emotionally available to my partner. On the flipside, a benefit of changing my behaviour would be that I would have more time and emotional energy to invest in my relationships, but a cost would be that I would have to develop new ways of dealing with stress which would be uncertain and frightening. Until the total benefits and costs of changing a behaviour outweigh the total benefits and costs of maintaining that behaviour, we are generally very unlikely to change what we're doing.
This is part of what has led to some of the rather outdated wisdom that you have to let addicts 'hit rock bottom', or stage interventions in order to get them to change. In essence, what this is doing is increasing the cost of maintaining the behaviour (the addiction) by making the addict feel worse about their situation or how other people view their addiction. For some people, this can be effective, but there are two problems here:
- Firstly, while this may increase the cost of addiction, it can also inadvertently increase the benefit gained from addiction. How? Quite simply, when people with addictions feel worse about themselves, the addiction can become even more valuable as a way of avoiding that negative feeling, and so the addictive behaviour continues (or sometimes even increases).
- Secondly, this misses the second part of the equation, the costs and benefits of changing. If a person in addiction experiences greater costs associated with continuing their addiction but does not experience greater benefits associated with changing their behaviour, then they are less likely to be motivated to change, and may instead end up feeling more hopeless about the situation.
In short, change happens when we can really see and experience the cost of what we are doing, and the benefits of changing. As family members and friends, one of the things that we can do to support someone in addiction to change their behaviour is to help them see the benefits of changing, and to contribute to creating those benefits. This is much easier, and more effective, than trying to force them to see the costs of their behaviour. I don't discuss this idea in detail here, but you can read more about it in the 'How You Can Help' section of this website.
Problems For Family And Friends
At the same time as addiction creates a lot of problems for the person in addiction, it also creates a lot of problems for those close to them. There's the pain and heartbreak of seeing someone that you care about deteriorating in all the ways mentioned above. There's the powerlessness of wanting to help, but not knowing how to do it and finding that any attempts are resisted or rejected. There's the anger about the person in addiction not seeming to care about the impacts that their behaviour has on you. There's the confusion and uncertainty of trying to work out how and when to set limits. And there's the inevitable challenge of balancing a desire to help and change the person who is addicted with the need to protect yourself, and sometimes others (like children). Getting this balance right means finding ways to support the addicted person to change if and when they want to do so, while at the same time making sure that your needs are met regardless of what the addicted person chooses to do. You can read more about ways to help a family member or friend who is experiencing addiction in the 'How You Can Help' section, and the remainder of this section will be dedicated to ways that you can look after yourself and stay sane when dealing with a family member in addiction.
It's perhaps important to re-iterate that this process will be hard. You probably know this already. At times, it will feel easier to focus on the addicted person and the problems they are having. However, the only person who you can reliably change and control, and for whom you can reliably make life better, is yourself. If you are overwhelmed, stressed out and finding things too much dealing with an addicted person then it is more important than ever that you look after yourself and take care of your own needs first of all.
To begin with, it may be helpful to become clear about the ways in which a person's addiction is impacting on you. You might find it helpful to write a list, or discuss it with a counsellor or friend. When looking at the ways that someone else's addiction affects you, try and be clear about both what the behaviour is that is affecting you, and how it affects you in terms of your thoughts and feelings about it. For example, you might recognise that: "When my husband spends the whole night after work playing computer games, he doesn't spend any time with me or the children (the behaviour). When this happens, I feel hurt, neglected, and angry (the impact and feelings)". Another example might be: "When my daughter lies to me about staying up late to play games, (the behaviour), I stop being able to trust her (the impact), and I feel betrayed and frustrated (the feelings)". By being clear about the behaviour and the impacts of the behaviour, it will start to become easier to understand how a family member's addiction is affecting you. Further, it can become easier to talk to them about it by letting them know specifically what it is that they are doing that is affecting you, and how you feel about it.
The next step is to decide what, if anything, you want to do about the impacts that someone else's addiction is having on you. If you look at each of the ways that you are being affected, you should ask yourself "Is this something I am willing to put up with?" It may be that some of the ways in which their behaviour is affecting you are tolerable, while others are not. A second question to ask is: "Is there some way I can change the way I feel or react to this behaviour, even if the addict does not change what they are doing?" Sometimes it may be possible to change the situation for yourself. For example, you might realise that "When I wait up until midnight waiting for my wife to come to bed because she is playing games, I feel furious, frustrated and helpless". In this situation, you might decide that a simple solution is that you will go to bed when you feel like it, and not wait for your wife.
What is important here is that even though you do not have any control over an addicted person's behaviour, you have control over how you choose to respond to it. Although it is very difficult to do this, when trying to support a friend or family member in addiction it is most important that you support and look after yourself first.
Supporting Yourself Through A Family Member's Addiction
Some of the ways in which you can support yourself when a family member is in addiction are by setting appropriate boundaries for yourself, talking about your experiences with someone else, doing things you enjoy without the addicted person, and finding ways to express and relieve frustration and stress.
One of the most important things when living with an addicted person is to set appropriate boundaries for yourself. Setting boundaries means changing the way that you respond to your family member's behaviour. To set good boundaries, it is important to start by clearly identifying for yourself what your family member is doing that you do not like, and the response you have had to it that you wish to change. For example, it might be that you have been cooking dinner for your family every night but your partner never joins the rest of the family for dinner due to gaming. In the past, your response to this has been to take dinner to your partner at their computer. You can then decide how you want to respond differently. This might be in a small way - for example, you might decide that you are no longer going to take dinner to your partner. Or you might decide that you are no longer going to cook dinner for them unless they join you at the table. Or at an extreme, you might decide that you are going to leave them unless they stop playing games and start having dinner with the family. It is entirely up to you to decide what is appropriate and feels right for you.
The next step in setting good boundaries is to let the other person know what these boundaries are - to tell them "I've decided that unless you join us at the table for dinner, I'm not going to make dinner for you. It's up to you." And the final step is to follow through with changing your response - if you tell your family member one thing but then behave differently, the main thing they will learn is that they can ignore what you say.
So to recap, setting good boundaries involves:
- Identifying the behaviour that you do not like and wish to set a boundary around
- Identifying your current response to that behaviour
- Identifying the way you intend to respond in the future to that behaviour
- Communicating that you are planning to respond in a different way
- Doing what you've said you will do!
It's really important here to mention that setting boundaries is not about punishing the other person. Setting boundaries is about protecting yourself, and often about improving the relationship. Typically, when we do not set good boundaries for ourselves, we end up feeling resentful and angry in our relationships. We can end up feeling taken-for-granted, ignored, or exploited. Often, we respond to these feelings by becoming aggressive or passive-aggressive. This damages the relationship. When we can set good boundaries for ourselves, we feel less resentful and can be more emotionally available to our family when they choose to engage with us.
It is particularly common for us to have poor boundaries around family members in addiction - the frustration of wanting to reach the addicted person and help them can lead us to become over-involved, to make excuses for them or to accommodate them in ways that can make us resentful and frustrated which is why learning to set healthy boundaries can be so important. For this reason you might also find it helpful to discuss the boundaries you intend to set with someone else, maybe another family member or friend, or a professional. They may be able to help support you to maintain these boundaries, and give you support at times when you are feeling overwhelmed.
The other reason setting boundaries is so important is that it means that the addicted person has no choice but to become aware of the impacts of their behaviour on others around them. It's one thing to hear about how it is affecting other people, but another altogether to see it in terms of the people around them changing their behaviour. When an addicted person's behaviour starts to have a real cost for them - not because you are trying to punish them, but because you are no longer accommodating and making allowances for their behaviour - it can help to create the motivation for them to want to change.
Talk To Someone
It's also important when you have a family member in addiction to find people to talk to who can hear your situation and offer support. This might be a close friend, a colleague, a minister, or anyone else outside the family. Since the challenge of living with someone in addiction tends to affect the whole family (or at least everyone who is living together), it's important to be able to talk to someone not directly affected by the situation who can listen to you and give you an outside perspective on what is happening. If you don't have any friends or others in your life who you feel would be suitable, it can also be a great option to talk to a professional therapist or counsellor. Many countries offer various low-cost counselling services, so it's worth looking around to see if any exist in your area.
Alternatively, there are a number of online support groups for people affected by a family member's gaming. Olganon is a good place to start, and it can be helpful hearing other people's stories about their experiences and what has worked for them.
Do Things You Enjoy - Without The Addicted Person
Also important when you are living with someone in addiction is that you continue to live and enjoy your life, and part of that means continuing to do things that you enjoy. It's often easy to put our own lives 'on hold' once we are dealing with addiction, and particularly to stop doing things that we once might have done with the addicted person. This has two effects: Firstly, it tends to make us frustrated and resentful as we lose some of the things that used to give us pleasure. Secondly, it makes it easier for the addicted person to forget or not notice the things that they have lost due to their addiction.
It's crucial then that you find ways to enjoy yourself, whether it's going out to movies, spending time with friends or other family members, engaging in hobbies, doing new classes or lessons, going for walks or whatever it is that you enjoy. If you used to do some of these activities with the addicted person, it may feel painful and difficult at first to do them on your own - you will likely be acutely aware of the other person's absence, but in time you will likely find that it becomes easier to have fun even without them present. You may also find it helpful to find friends or other family members who can do these activities with you, or even to make new friends through the activities or hobbies.
Again, spending time doing things for you is not a way to punish the addicted person, it's a way to support yourself. It can also often help motivate the addicted person to change their behaviour if you leave them an open invitation to join you - to say something like "I've decided to go to the movies with a couple of friends on Friday. You're welcome to join us if you'd like, it's up to you".
Relieving Frustration And Stress
Alongside doing things you enjoy, it can be important when you're living with someone in addiction to find ways to relieve the inevitable stress and frustration that it creates. Many of the same things that you do to have fun might be helpful here, but other possibilities that are particularly good for relieving stress are exercise and mindfulness practice. You can exercise at the local park, by going for a run, by joining a gym, or by joining a casual sports team. Mindfulness is a form of simple but highly effective meditative practices that can have a huge impact on relieving stress even when practiced for just a few minutes a day, and there are a ton of free resources available. The Free Mindfulness Project is a good place to start.
Addiction causes problems for many people - not just the addicted person themselves, but for the family and friends around them. As an affected person, it can be hard at times to separate our care and concern for the addicted person from our own frustration and hurt over the impact that the addiction has on us. Similarly, it can be hard to find ways to look after ourselves and carry on with our own lives when we are so caught up in the challenges of living with addiction. To do this, we need to find ways to set appropriate boundaries, find support through other people that we can talk to about our challenges, and find ways to enjoy our own lives through pleasurable activities and ways to relieve our stress and frustration. If we can do those things, then we are also in a much better position to support the addicted people in our lives.