How to Cope When a Loved One Has a Substance Use Disorder

March 9, 2020

It’s hard having a loved one with a substance use disorder; fear and anger mingle with worry and compassion as your loved one’s substance use seems to get steadily worse. This can take a toll on your mental and physical health. Elsewhere, we’ve looked at how to help a loved one with a substance use disorder. Now we’re going to look at some ways you can help yourself when your loved one has a substance use disorder.

Stay Safe

First of all, stay safe. It’s perhaps an unhelpful stereotype that people with substance use disorders are dangerous and violent but it’s true that substance use makes people more impulsive. Early symptoms of withdrawal or co-occurring disorders such as depression or borderline personality disorder may make someone more irritable, aggressive, or volatile. When you have a substance use disorder, your friendships are more likely to revolve around substance use rather than nobler qualities. 

As a result, if your loved one has a substance use disorder, your safety and property may be at slightly greater risk, so be sure to follow some commonsense safety measures. Don’t let someone in your house if they seem agitated or violent. Have a friend you can call in an emergency and don’t be afraid to call the police if necessary.

Educate Yourself About Addiction

Educating yourself about addiction is great for helping your loved one but it can help you too. Having a better understanding of the causes, development, and treatment of addiction helps reduce your uncertainty, and thus your anxiety. You don’t feel like you’re groping in the dark. Knowing how addiction and treatment work won’t necessarily tell you how things will turn out for your loved one, but it can help you figure out where you are in the process. It might also help relieve any guilt you might feel about your loved one’s addiction, since we now know that much of addiction risk is influenced by genes and childhood environment. 

Know It’s Not Your Fault

As noted above, much of addiction risk is influenced by genes and childhood environment. Mental health issues and trauma also play a significant role. Perhaps most importantly, you have to accept that you can’t control your loved one’s behavior. You can listen with compassion and try to encourage them to get help, but whatever they ultimately decide to do is on them. Feeling like you’re responsible for someone else’s behavior will ultimately only make you feel stressed and guilty.

Learn to Set Boundaries

Learning to set boundaries is crucial because of the safety concerns discussed above and because lying and manipulation are common features of addictive behavior. Maintaining boundaries means you expect other people to respect your values, autonomy, and personal space and you respect those of others. You don’t allow yourself to be manipulated or intimidated. People who are in relationships with someone with a substance use disorder often have boundaries that are too flexible or even non-existent. This does neither of you any good, since it allows your loved one to take advantage of you and it perpetuates your loved one’s substance use. 

Practice Self-Care

Having a loved one with a substance use disorder is a source of chronic stress. It adds massive uncertainty to your life and likely adds to your own list of obligations. This can wear you down mentally and physically. Since you can’t help anyone else if you are in poor health, it’s crucial to take care of yourself first. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Running a chronic sleep deficit has been linked to cognitive impairments such as poor concentration, poor memory, and poor emotional regulation. In the long run, a sleep deficit increases your risk of developing major depression and anxiety disorders. It also increases your risk of physical health problems, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. So make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep each night, ideally eight hours or more.

Regular exercise is also important for self-care. There is a ton of research showing that even just walking for 20 minutes a day improves your mood, memory, concentration, and reduces your number of poor mental health days. Perhaps most importantly, regular exercise reduces your sensitivity to stress, which can help you respond more effectively to the challenges of living with someone with substance use issues.

Talk to a Therapist

There are several reasons to talk to a therapist if you have a loved one with a substance use disorder. Coping with the stress, guilt, and other difficult emotions related to your loved one’s substance use issues is a major reason. Learning to set and maintain healthy boundaries is another. A third is that substance use issues are often closely connected to relationship issues. For example, dysfunctional family dynamics often drive addictive behavior and people with substance use disorders often end up in abusive or codependent relationships. Understanding where you fit in this dynamic can help you resolve your own issues, which can indirectly benefit your loved one too. 

Find Social Support

Finally, don’t try to deal with this challenge alone. Find support in friends you can talk to. Try attending Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meetings, which are for friends and family of people with substance use disorders. Talking to other people who understand is often a huge relief. It can help you process the situation and better understand what’s going on. When it comes to helping your loved one and setting boundaries, you will feel like you have other people behind you supporting you.

Although it’s natural to want to help a loved one with a substance use issue, you have to remember to take care of yourself first. You can’t help someone else very much if you’re physically or mentally unwell. It’s also likely that helping yourself will indirectly help your loved one. If someone you care about is struggling with addiction, we can help. Steps Recovery Centers takes a holistic approach to treatment, based on 12-Step principles. To learn more about our programs, explore our website or call us at 385-236-0931.

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