What You Can’t Do
#1 Make them quit.
You can stage an intervention, and you may be successful, but you cannot force someone with a substance abuse problem to quit. Even in states that allow involuntary treatment, you can’t make someone get sober.
“You can keep throwing money at them, telling them what to do and trying to lift them up, but they have to commit to it,” says Eve Goldberg, a mom who lost her 23-year-old son, Isaac, to an opiate overdose in 2013. “I’ve learned you have to let go. You can’t control them or the situation, and the sooner you accept your lack of control, the sooner they can face the natural consequences of their actions.”
#2 Do the work of recovery for them.
Even if a loved one goes to drug rehab, you can’t do the work of recovery for them and you can’t prevent relapse. After Eve’s son completed addiction treatment, everything was going well. He had a job and was rebuilding his life. He told his mom “I’m never going back to that bad place again.”
Months later, he spiraled back into active addiction. She tried to talk with him about the signs she was seeing, but he didn’t want to admit it. One night, Eve heard unusual breathing from his bedroom and when she checked on him, she couldn’t wake him up. After six weeks in a coma, the doctors told Eve that Isaac was gone.
Eve was well-educated about addiction. She stayed close to Isaac and kept the lines of communication open. But unfortunately, “even if you see the signs you can’t always do something about it.” Addiction hijacks the brain, leading people to hide, lie and manipulate to maintain their drug abuse. Isaac didn’t want to die. He wanted to get better. But there is simply no logic in addiction.
After dealing with her own family’s substance abuse for over 20 years, Carole Bennett, MA, author of Reclaim Your Life: You and the Alcoholic/Addict and Is There a Dry Drunk in Your Life? and a counselor in private practice, learned “You shouldn’t babysit someone’s recovery. You can be a participant in their healing, but from arm’s length.”
For many, even those who ultimately maintain their recovery long-term, relapse is a common part of the process. Like other chronic diseases, it’s not unusual for those struggling with addiction to need multiple episodes of treatment. “Someone can go to meetings, have a sponsor and be a poster child for AA but still relapse,” says Bennett. “It’s a vicious cycle, and the person has to be willing to reach out for help to stop it.”
#3 Accept behavior that violates your boundaries.
To avoid enabling, loved ones have to set boundaries. And once you’ve laid out your boundaries, allowing them to be violated destroys your credibility and perpetuates your loved one’s addiction.
“If you don’t follow through with consequences when someone violates one of your boundaries, your word is like quicksand,” says Bennett. “If you say what you mean and mean what you say, even if they’re mad at first, they’ll respect you in the long term.”
Boundaries can be basic — for example, the person has to be clean and sober if they’re in your home. If the boundary is broken, Bennett recommends calmly saying, “We talked about this and this doesn’t work for me” or “I love you but I can’t go down this road anymore” and then following through with the consequence. Holding firm to your boundaries may mean disengaging for a period of time, or indefinitely, she says.
For some people struggling with addiction, experiencing the consequences of their drug use is the only way they’ll recognize the seriousness of the problem and get help. “Sometimes love is letting them hit bottom,” Bennett says. For evidence, she suggests going to an open AA meeting. “More often than not, you’ll hear people say ‘Thank God my parent kicked me out/said no.’ As difficult as it is, you don’t have the power to fix it. Only they do.”