Since there are more than 23 million Americans struggling with drug or alcohol abuse problems, there are many millions more family and other loved ones suffering right along with them. This could make this problem one of our country’s most pervasive ills.

One survey reported that 64% of people have experienced addiction in someone close to them. A father, mother, child, uncle, close friend—it’s not hard to find someone who has lost control of their drug or alcohol consumption.

So it is both important and useful to have some guidelines when you’re dealing with an addicted person. 

When a person struggles with drug or alcohol abuse, they are likely to struggle with mental health issues and physical problems, both short-term and chronic issues.

They are also likely to cause suffering for their loved ones, including spouses, parents, children, friends, and other family.

For those who love someone who is struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, it is important to know the signs of substance abuse problems and how to best help the person in need. In addition, it is important that family members and friends take care of themselves as well.

Drug or Alcohol Abuse Symptoms

Mayo Clinic offers a comprehensive list of symptoms that may be displayed by a person struggling with drug or alcohol abuse. Many of these may be internal experiences; however, symptoms that may be evident to others include:

  • Appearing intoxicated more and more often
  • Developing problems with cognition and memory
  • Being lethargic, sleeping more, sleeping irregular hours, or appearing unwell or tired
  • Developing problems at work or school; possibly losing one’s job or dropping out of school
  • Attending social events only if drugs or alcohol are available; becoming intoxicated before the social event; or attending fewer social events specifically to drink or use drugs
  • Stealing money or valuables to pay for drugs
  • Lying about the substance or how much they are using
  • Becoming angry, sad, or lashing out when questioned about their substance abuse
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they are unable to take the drug
  • Neglected appearance and poor hygiene

People who struggle with substance abuse problems are likely to behave differently when they are intoxicated versus when they are sober; they may say or do hurtful things, and they are likely to take serious risks with their life, such as driving while intoxicated. These behavioral problems can cause intense worry and fear in loved ones.

Control vs. Influence

Those who love a person struggling with addiction may, at some point, try to force the person to get help. Even if the person agrees, they may fail in their attempt to overcome the addiction. Addiction is not a choice that an individual can control; it is a compulsion, so they are unable to stop consuming drugs or alcohol without help.

The risk/reward center of their brain has been rewired with repeated reinforcement of these cravings.

Blaming them or trying to protect them from consequences will not help a person struggling with addiction; this is because neither the person, nor their loved ones, has control.

Loved ones do hold a great deal of influence in the life of a person struggling with drugs or alcohol. Gathering a group of loved ones together to stage an intervention – as long as it is thoroughly planned and focused on helping the addict – can be a way to show love and support while also setting boundaries around addictive behaviors. Even just sitting the person down and talking to them about concerns in a calm, clear, and concise way can have an influence. Repeatedly offering help in the form of social support, information on drug rehabilitation programs, and other methods to get healthy and sober may prompt the person to accept help.

Ending Codependency

People who are close to a person struggling with addiction, especially spouses, partners, and children, may find they are in a codependent relationship. Codependency involves a desire to help the person and show love, but often, this “help” fosters the addiction, and this is damaging on a long-term basis. Signs of codependency include:

  1. Taking responsibility for the addict: People in a codependent relationship often feel a heightened responsibility for the decisions, behaviors, and thoughts of their loved one. They may feel a need to ensure their loved one is happy, even to the point of making themselves unhappy. They feel like they must protect their loved one, perhaps by driving them to and from the bar to avoid a DUI or by calling their boss when they are too hungover to make it to work and making excuses for them.
  2. Putting the other person’s feelings first: A codependent person will put their loved one’s feelings before their own needs. As a result, they often ignore their own feelings, values, and beliefs to accommodate those of their loved one. This results in self-neglect.
  3. Holding onto the relationship to avoid abandonment: People who are in a codependent relationship fear being abandoned, rejected, and alone. Many desperately need approval, and they seek via constantly trying to please someone. When that person is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they may give the person money or shelter them when they are intoxicated in an effort to maintain the relationship.
  4. Trouble talking about their feelings: A person who is in a codependent relationship will often not be able to recognize their own feelings, including dissatisfaction or fear; they have a very hard talking about their needs and how those can be met. They focus on “fixing” their loved one, if that person is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, rather than getting help for themselves.
  5. Inability to set personal boundaries: Those with codependent tendencies are more likely to say “yes” to any request their loved one makes, including those they are not comfortable with. This makes them believe they are in charge of the situation, especially when their loved one struggles with drugs or alcohol. If they can help their loved one, they believe they are helping themselves; in reality, the opposite is true.

Even if two people enter a relationship that is not codependent, it could become codependent if one person begins to struggle with alcohol or drug addiction. Both parties should get help from therapists to overcome these emotional problems; ultimately, help is required to heal the relationship.