In attempting to understand the dizzying maze that is addiction, the importance of the role of friends and family quickly becomes evident. Any hope of a permanent, stable recovery for an addict involves the support of others – either those already in his or her life or those gained in structured recovery settings. The myriad of problems associated with addiction, the overwhelming information about it, the different approaches to recovery, the complications of dual disorders, and the societal obstacles and influences an addicted person faces all pale in comparison to the family and interpersonal dynamics that can sabotage and complicate or enhance the road to recovery.
For friends and family, making the distinction between supporting and enabling an addict is usually the main task, and it is a daunting one, but success in doing so results in an informed, structured, healthy safety net of acceptance for a loved one. While the addict must make the choice to become well, friends and family must make the choice to support him or her appropriately. This clarity is difficult to achieve, but there are many educational resources and programs – both formal and informal – that can help a friend or family member keep this commitment of support.
The science of addiction is always evolving, resulting in an ever-deepening understanding of it and ever more sophisticated treatment approaches. It is incumbent upon those who are committed to a recovering person to stay abreast of information and trends by continually reviewing the work of such entities as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. For the most part, though, this knowledge probably won’t have a dramatic effect on one’s relationship with an addicted person, but it may help in solidifying other basic approaches of support.
Educating oneself is important, but changing ways of interacting weighs more heavily in helping an addicted person. Friends and family are appropriately supportive when they focus more on their own reactions to a loved one’s addictive behavior than on the person or behavior itself. For example, an addict who does something illegal should suffer the resultant penal and/or monetary consequences without interference from friends and family. Also, friends and family members are truly supportive when they can view their loved one as separate from his or her addictive behavior. This manifests in their ability to establish boundaries and set limits on the behavior without negatively engaging or shaming the loved one. Supportive friends and family members encourage the addictive person to get help and offer their services in doing so, but they are not forceful. Finally, they especially encourage situations and settings for themselves and their loved one that places them among those who are making the recovery journey with success; for example, participation in Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon.
While personal responsibility is at the heart of recovery – and recovery cannot proceed without it – a paradigm shift for friends and family toward a lifelong partnership of awareness and informed effort on behalf of the recovering person is critical. The woven web of roles and interfaces in his or her interpersonal systems will probably require an overhaul and a concerted effort on behalf of friends and family to place the addicted person above themselves by continually adjusting their expectations. Unfortunately, among the losses an addict often faces are his or her relationships, and these will need to be replaced by other formal and/or informal relationships that require an ongoing commitment. This is because an addict’s recovery is always a group process in one form or another.