As a loved one of someone with an alcohol or drug problem, you may have heard this advice:

“An addict has to “hit bottom” before he or she is ready for help. You need to take care of yourself, stop enabling, and wait.”

As a professional, this advice just never sat well with me. It led me to more questions:

  • “Since statistics estimate that a person usually has 10 years of active addiction before recovery is introduced, what is the family supposed to do during this decade?”
  • “What if he or she dies, becomes permanently injured, or ends up in prison before “hitting bottom?” How is the family supposed to feel after having chosen to sit back and do nothing?”
  • “What is going to happen to the relationship between the individual and the family during this decade of addiction, assuming he or she even survives that decade?
  • “Won’t it be more difficult for him or her to achieve sobriety after all those years of alcoholism or addiction? Isn’t there some way to reach this person sooner?”

Waiting to get treatment is not an option for most families; it just doesn’t make sense.

It is too painful to “let go” and do nothing. Families deserve a better answer than to stop enabling and to step back and wait. Most family members are conditioned to try everything possible. That is the definition of family.

Most families are wired to search for every chance, every idea, and every strategy that might make a difference.  At the same time families cannot destroy themselves through the obsession to find a solution.  Is there a strategy or approach that can be the difference maker?  I believe there is.   In fact, the family is the single most important factor in having an individual become ready to do something about ADP.

It’s not just families that know waiting to get treatment is a mistake.

Bankole Johnson, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Virginia (U.V.A.) School of Medicine told Scientific American Magazine the following:

“The myth is that people have to reach rock bottom to get treatment, but that is not the case if they are being provided with evidence-based medicine.”

When you love someone too much to do nothing…

It is both a healthy and common instinct for family members to want to do something when a loved one appears to be in trouble. What makes alcohol and drug problems so difficult is that they distort the thinking process of the sufferer. Quite often the individual cannot see the problem or they simply don’t care. Either way, it’s a major roadblock to recovery. Families tend to gravitate to one of two extremes:

  • The Over-responsible ResponseSome families take alcohol and drug problems personally:  “What have I done to cause this?  What can I do to fix this?”  The obsession to find the cause becomes overwhelming.  “Perhaps its stress? Could he / she be depressed? Am I not loving enough? Is there a deeper psychological problem?” As one’s addiction progresses, their family often times will desperately search for some underlying cause. This can be exhausting and rarely productive.
  • The Ultimatum ResponseFamily members sometimes take a different, more-aggressive approach. They may conclude that “we gave him / her a chance to straighten up their act and they have refused.  He / She is on her own.” Abandoning an individual with an active alcohol or drug problem is quite risky. Many people are no match for the power of addiction and alcoholism. Too many of those left alone to face addiction end up in prison, experience major physical injury, or even overdose.

So what is a Better Way?

  1. Do everything possible to help your family stick together.  It is important for families to have one voice and a consistent approach to relating to their addicted or alcoholic loved one. This is often very challenging because many times there are different opinions. Families may need support to bring the differing perspectives into an overall strategy.
  2. “Time Outs” are better than “Kick Outs.” If a loved one is causing chaos in the home something needs to be done immediately. If treatment is either refused or not an option, it is often better to orchestrate a Time Out.  Time Outs have proven to be far more effective than kicking an alcoholic or addict out of the house for good.
  3. An objective, measured and consistent response is better than an out-of-control response. Families can unwittingly feed into the addiction process by going from one extreme to the other. Addicts and alcoholics often are able to manipulate situations based on their environment’s inconsistencies. This ultimately leads to continued drug and alcohol abuse.

When approaching addicts and alcoholics, it’s best to start with a clear but milder approach and then continue to move towards stronger actions until the addict or alcoholic responds. This open, clear and objective approach is more difficult for an addict or alcoholic to deflect.

Open and clear communication is better than secretive communication. Be up front about the actions you’re going to take regarding your loved one’s addiction or alcoholism. Here are two simple examples:

“Dave, I know that you have said that you don’t want to get treatment and are not ready to do something regarding your drug use. I want you to know that the family will be meeting tomorrow to discuss what to do next. We would love for you to give us your input or even to join us in our discussion. We love you too much to do nothing. Do consider giving us your input or joining us for the talk. We don’t want to make decisions without your input.”

“Jill, I love you. You know that I think your use of prescription painkillers has gotten out of hand. You don’t agree. Know that I am going to meet with a professional in a few days just to discuss how I can explore what options I have to address this situation. I will be happy to share with you what the professional says if you would like. I would imagine it would be far better if the professional heard your perspective. If you would like to do that you could join me or even call into the session to give your perspective.”