I came here to drink myself to death” - Ben Sanderson

How long will it take you?” - Sera

Id say about three to four weeks” - Ben Sanderson

Nicholas Cage plays the screenwriter Sanderson in the unbelievably credible and tragic ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ (1995)[1]. Perhaps there are so many films which depict addiction because it is such an enigma. After all, heartbreak and confusion make for enthralling dramas and these are liberally supplied to those whose lives are touched by addiction. The reality is that addiction often destroys; it can destroy trust, ruin childhoods, break up households and ensure economic insecurity. Whilst some addicts and alcoholics recover and rebuild their lives, many are unable to resurface. These facts offer disillusionment as well as hope to those who love an addict. So, how best to love an addict? In this article, we will consider positive, proven, effective strategies , remembering that some knowledge of the disease is a crucial survival tool.

An individual develops into an addict over time. Therefore, the love which is built up between the person who becomes a substance abuser and their partner probably began as a healthy and fulfilling relationship. However, once an individual is taken over by their illness, their normal priorities and behaviour patterns gradually erode. Some addicts remain in employment, ‘function’ and manage to fulfil their responsibilities, not everyone loses everything. The disease takes different people to different depths. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that those crippled by active addiction will make their drug of choice their priority. Addicts will lie, often because they are ashamed of their behaviour and yet compelled by the disease to continue using. They may steal and behave unreliably and irresponsibly. In short, they become difficult to recognise and display various versions of the original person. Without treatment addiction is a progressive illness, and therefore the more selfish, insular characteristics grow with time. For family members this is confusing and emotionally painful.

The loved one’s feelings of rejection and of losing the person that they once knew are compounded by the shame and stigma in which addiction is shrouded. Since no one is keen to speak openly about the problem, it is often not faced early on. However, communication brings about useful outcomes only when the addict is ready to face their disease and ask for help. As Johann Hari points out, the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, but actually human connection[2]. Yet the individual must want change in order to tackle recuperation and enter recovery. Russell Brand advises the loved ones of addicts to remember that i) they are powerless over the disease (just as the addict cannot control their illness without help) ii) the only help that loved ones should be offering is help to change.

Those who love a suffering addict may attempt to coerce the person to get help. However, addiction is not a choice that a person can control, it is a compulsion. The risk and reward centre of the sufferer’s brain has been rewired. Blaming the substance abuser or trying to shield them from consequences will not help because the addict is powerless over their addiction. Fortunately, loved ones do have significant influence to intervene in the life of an individual struggling with addiction. In fact, if loved ones use calm, clear communication they may be able to touch the real person beneath the addiction and initiate change. Open conversations are also vital for the creation of boundaries around addictive behaviours. Regularly offering help in the form of support and information on rehabilitation programmes may prompt the person to eventually accept help.

Treatment programmes can help addicts to gain some understanding of their illness and give them a chance of recovery. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 85% of people relapse within a year of leaving treatment[3]. Of course, many of these return, once again to live productive, sober lives. Due to the nature of addiction, statistics vary as to how many individuals remain clean and sober in the long term. Relapse is a fundamental component of addiction. Loving someone suffering with addiction requires an understanding of the realities of the disease in order to be of help. Many treatment centres promote twelve step fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous to their clients. Studies show that approximately 50% of people who had attended 12-step meetings only were clean and sober at 1 year[4] and at 3 and 8 years[5]. Around 20% of those surveyed who did not attend 12-step meetings or treatment were clean and sober at their parallel later interviews. These statistics suggest the effectiveness of treatment and ongoing support groups.

In the meantime, before an addict has admitted that there is a problem which requires some outside help, relationships between addicts and their parents, partners or children may become codependent. Those closest to the person long to ‘solve’ the addiction but often this ‘help’ is detrimental on a long-term basis. Codependent behaviours include taking responsibility for the addict and their actions or putting their feelings first. A codependent individual will prioritise their loved one’s needs before their own which often results in self neglect. As any paramedic will attest, if a rescue will endanger the life of the medic then their could ultimately be two casualties, rather than one.

Addiction psychologists emphasise the necessity for loved ones to talk about their own feelings and needs throughout their attempts to support the addict. Through therapy, family members can ensure that they do not become isolated in their own fears and frustrations. Moreover, those with codependent tendencies are advised to set personal boundaries. For example, a husband may refuse to drive his wife around, even if she is too intoxicated or ‘high’ to drive herself. A child could be encouraged to find the love and consistency which they need from another family member, rather than from their addicted parent. Whilst these choices may seem harsh, they will be conducive to the well-being of everyone in the long term.

Clearly, loving an addict is not for the faint hearted. Those close to the addict remember the individual behind the substances and therefore persevere in their care. For some, loving an addict becomes too painful and relationships disintegrate. Yet addiction is not a moral-failing, it is a medically recognised disease of the brain which can be treated when the sufferer decides to access help. Through avoiding codependent behaviours, creating boundaries and consistently highlighting the need for outside help, loved ones can benefit the addict. Members of Al Anon speak of ‘detaching with love’ to describe their behaviour towards a substance soaked soul whom they adore but from whom they must sometimes distance themselves. Whether or not the addict surmounts their illness, loved ones can give their family the best possible life by using the behaviour mechanisms mentioned. It is said that ‘love conquers all’, perhaps it can. However, people need practical strategies around this cruel illness.