Addiction is a complex disease, and it’s often an uncomfortable topic to discuss with a friend or family member. Before you speak to a loved one about their addiction, it’s important to understand what addiction is and what you should expect from your friend or family member. Addiction is a disease that affects the brain, specifically in the reward center. It’s characterized by compulsive drug use despite the serious consequences. Heroin is notoriously addictive; confronting and addressing such an addiction can be challenging.

What You Need to Understand Before Addressing Addiction

Someone who’s addicted to a psychoactive drug might not realize they have a problem, even if their drug use is causing medical, psychological, social, financial, or legal problems. In other cases, an addicted person might realize they have a problem and still find that they can’t stop their use or seek help.

Addiction changes the way a person perceives drug use. The reward center is designed to take notice of activities that affect your levels of “feel-good chemicals” in your brain. Eating a good meal, sleeping in a warm bed, and hugging someone are all examples of activities that your reward center notices and encourages you to repeat. These activities keep you mentally and physically healthy and strengthen social bonds. The reward center helps us survive by encouraging us to seek life-sustaining activities over and over.

Unfortunately, many psychoactive drugs have a profound impact on these chemicals in your brain, and it can trick your reward center into treating drug use as one of these other activities that are vital to your survival. That means an addicted person may seek drugs like someone who is starving would seek food.

For that reason, it’s important to approach the issue of addiction with compassion and without judgment. Substance use disorders often start with poor choices, but addiction is not a matter of moral failings or bad habits, just like poor dietary choices can lead to diabetes. It’s important that you realize that addiction is a disease that needs treatment, not punishment. This is an important lesson particularly for the parents of someone who’s struggling with addiction. It’s a disease that can’t be solved with a scolding, grounding, or even a heart-to-heart conversation.

Like diabetes and other chronic diseases, addiction takes treatment and a lifelong commitment to recovery.

What is Enabling Behavior?

When you’re dealing with a loved one who’s developed a substance use disorder, it’s important that you offer help without hurting. That means avoiding any enabling behavior. Most people are aware that enabling addiction can be dangerous, but you may not be aware of what constitutes enabling behavior. It can sometimes be difficult to know the difference between enabling and helping. The most important thing to remember is to encourage treatment but avoid getting in the way of consequences that come from drug abuse.

If you act as a buffer between an addicted loved one and the consequences of addiction, it may only prolong the time it takes for them to realize that they need help. It will also harm you, which is bad for your personal mental and physical health and weakens their support system.

Here are a Few Examples of Common Acts of Enabling Behavior:

  • Lying to cover for an addicted person. Lying can cause stress and social consequences, but it also shields an addicted loved one from the consequences of their substance use.
  • Sacrificing your health and well-being. Anyone with a friend or family member that’s struggling with addiction may go through some sleepless nights.
  • Don’t compromise your personal boundaries. If you set a rule that you will not allow drugs in your house, then stick to it. People who are addicted can become desperate. Even if they want to obey your rules, they may break them. When they do, it’s important to maintain your integrity and provide structure.
  • Don’t give any money. Addiction can be expensive. When an addicted person becomes desperate for money, they may do things they would never have done when they were sober like beg or steal. If monetary help is something you can give, offer to help with costs associated with getting help for treatment services, or sober living housing.
  • Don’t avoid the issue. It’s important to remain non-judgmental about a person’s addiction, but that doesn’t mean staying silent. Ignoring the issue, especially in the face of unacceptable behavior, is a form of enabling. If you develop a substance use disorder and no one mentions it, you might assume that it’s at least not bothering anyone. Bring the SUD up when you need to.

Avoiding Codependency

When someone you love has developed a substance use disorder, it’s important to avoid one of the most common pitfalls the families of addicted loved ones face: codependency. If your loved one is dealing with addiction, your life might be altered and centered on addiction as well. As a result, you may feel isolated, manipulated, overinvolved, guilty, responsible, and even loss of yourself and your personal identity. You may feel the pressure that if you don’t take care of an addicted loved one, something terrible might happen.

Codependency occurs when your life revolves around an addicted person, and you become overprotective and over-involved in their life. Codependent people may seek to protect an addicted person from everything to the point of enabling their continued addiction. In some cases, codependent people may resist sending the addicted person to treatment because they are made anxious by the thought of sending them away.

It’s important to realize that getting them the help they need is the most you can do. Codependency does more harm to both you and your addicted loved one.

Why Family Involvement in Therapy is Important

Once your loved one has entered a treatment program, you may still be involved if you want to help them achieve lasting recovery. Family involvement in treatment can be a huge benefit to the addicted person and their family. Many treatment programs offer family therapy services or other opportunities for family involvement, as long as it would benefit the client. Clinicians have identified a wide variety of positive factors that can come from family involvement in treatment.

Benefits Can Include:

  • Increased understanding of addiction for family members.
  • Increased motivation to continue in treatment for the client.
  • Dysfunctional family problems can be identified and addressed.
  • Family members can better prepare for what they can expect from treatment and recovery.
  • Family members can learn about relapse and warning signs.
  • Family therapy can alleviate feelings of shame and guilt family members might have.
  • Different strengths and weaknesses in the family can be identified, strengthening the client’s support system.
  • The client learning and understanding how addiction affects the people around them.
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