When concerned loved ones want to confront substance abusers about the chaos created by their problem, they wonder what to say. They often face rage, short-lived remorse or an earful of blame if they bring up the issue. Families watch in despair as alcoholics ruin relationships, create a financial strain on themselves and others, and show increasingly dangerous physical damage. Despite a family’s pleas and threats, despite every effort to help, the alcoholics or addicts they love continue a downward spiral. The families suffer mounting shame, frustration and worry. When nothing seems to work, they continue to wonder, “What do you say to an alcoholic?”
Before confronting anyone, families of alcoholics and drug addicts should educate themselves about the disease of addiction. No matter what the alcoholics or addicts may say, their addiction is not the fault of their families or friends. While genetics may play a role, the substance abusers are responsible for their own choices.
Families also need to recognize symptoms of alcohol or drug abuse. These include constant lying and denial about the problem, frequent irresponsible or dangerous behavior, hidden bottles or drugs, evidence of blackouts (inability to remember actions while under the influence) and increasing need for more alcohol or drugs to feel ‘normal.’ Families also can explore treatment options, including the process of formal intervention.
The Importance of Self-Care for Families
Because families care, they often make the mistake of forgetting to care for themselves first. They become caught in the cycle of addiction, and they begin to enable the addicted person’s behavior. When a wife makes excuses for her husband’s failure to show up at work, she is enabling. When a husband covers up his wife’s verbal brawl in a bar, he is enabling. When families repeatedly give money to their addicted children, or bail them out of jail, they are enabling. Loved ones often lose perspective, and they become sick, too. They may endanger their own physical and emotional health by trying to control the substance abuser’s behavior.
Only by detaching emotionally and taking care of themselves will families help the situation. Self-care and self-responsibility are more important than wondering. “What do you say to an alcoholic?”