Having a personal or professional relationship with someone who struggles with any type of addiction can be incredibly challenging. An addict’s behavior is often unpredictable and causes difficulties in the lives of those who love, live, or work with them. Sometimes they even behave in ways that are scary and dangerous. If they deny they have a problem or refuse to get help, it can be especially frustrating and heartbreaking to witness their lives become consumed by a substance or addictive behavior.
While living or regularly interacting with an addict is rarely easy, there are strategies you can employ to help you cope. Here are ten ways to deal with an addict that help protect your safety and sanity.
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1. Clarify Your Boundaries
Clarify for yourself (and, ultimately, with the addict) what you will tolerate from them and what you will not. Write down a list of hard lines in the sand (e.g., “I will not tolerate you banging on my door at 3am, threatening my family, being intoxicated at an important social event…”).
This can help you clearly communicate to an addict what the consequences of their behavior will be—and help you know when to take action to ensure your safety.
2. Enforce Consequences
Be firm about enforcing consequences when an addict violates your clearly stated boundaries. This could be no contact for one or more weeks, changing the locks on your door, or (if you live with the addict), eventually asking them to leave or relocating yourself to a friend or family member’s home until the addict gets help.
For any behaviors risking physical harm or involving harassment, call 911 immediately. It’s important to have a record of offenses in the event you need to take out an order of protection against the addict.
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3. Have a Safety Plan
Keep a written or digital list of who to call, where to stay, and what to do if an addict’s behavior risks harming yourself or someone you love. Coordinate with trusted others to execute the plan as needed. Consult with a lawyer, your local precinct, or a local religious leader if your faith is important to you to brainstorm safety measures, legal protections, and places of respite that you can seek if the addict’s behavior escalates.
4. Communicate Your Concerns
Honestly sharing with an addict how their behavior is affecting you is one step towards getting them the help they need. Blaming and shaming them can drive them to use more, push you away, or ignore your counsel. So, try phrasing your concerns with “I” statements, and providing specific examples of how their behavior has impacted you.
For example: “I was left waiting for you to meet me three times this month after we agreed to work on a project together, but then I learned you were too hungover/intoxicated to make it. I felt really let down and I’m worried about the toll your drinking/using is taking on your body and your relationships.”
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5. Assess the Addict’s Readiness To Change
Does the addict believe they have a problem? Are they motivated to get help? Do they deny their use is an issue? Asking an addict how they feel about their substance use can give you a sense of their readiness to change. From there, you can determine how best to support them.
6. Support the Addict in Getting Help
If an addict is open to change, you may wish to offer to support them in seeking the right kind of help—whether that’s going to a rehab facility, seeking individual or group counseling, or joining a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or another recovery program like SMART recovery.
But if the addict isn’t yet open to change, ask what they might need or what would need to happen for them to feel more ready. This supports their reflection on change and can foster a future decision to get help.
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7. Try Not to Enable Them
Enabling an addict means you intentionally or unintentionally supporting their addiction—picking them up from the bar when they’re too inebriated to make it home; providing food, money, clothes, or housing while they spend their income on substances; cleaning up after them or covering for them at work or socially so they won’t get in trouble.
The less you enable, the more consequences an addict will face for their behavior—and thus the more incentive, however painful, they’ll have to change.
8. Accept What You Cannot Control
One of the hardest parts of being involved with an addict is accepting that you cannot control or cure their addiction. It can be scary and sad to watch someone spiral, but you must accept that addictive behavior didn’t start with you and is not your fault. The sooner you accept that you cannot control another person’s addiction, the sooner you give yourself the freedom to heal and truly support the addict if they decide to change.
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9. Seek Support
Without adequate support, managing the stress of another person’s addiction can feel impossible. A support group, therapist, or spiritual advisor is great for this. Al-Anon and Adult Children are 12-step programs that have helped many find communities and skills to manage loved ones' addictions while increasing self-care. Online therapy is another option that many find to be convenient, affordable, and helpful.
10. Build Positive Experiences
Make time for activities that give you energy, joy, and a reprieve from stress. Doing so can increase your sense of agency and empowerment while also helping to regulate your nervous system (which can remain in fight-flight-freeze mode if you're constantly dealing with the stress of an addict's problematic behavior). This increases your ability to cope and also provides you the distance you need from the energy and time-consuming behavior of the addict.
Don't Give Up Hope
Dealing with addicts can drain us of vitality, hope, and peace if we don't have effective coping mechanisms. But implementing boundaries, executing safety plans, and having support networks while engaging in stress-reducing, enjoyable experiences helps us maintain perspective and see past the chaos of an addict’s harmful behavior. If you're dealing with an addict, don’t wait to reach out for help.