Addiction myths and facts for loved ones

Published Aug. 20, 2017

Myth: You can't help or change someone with an addiction.

Reality: There are actually many things you can do to have a positive impact on the person you care about. You can learn to change interactions with your loved one. You can also learn the importance of self-care and to better understand addiction and what things might trigger use. You can develop positive communication and reinforcement strategies and learn problem-solving skills.  

All these action have been proven to motivate a loved one to accept help. People with addiction have often become very disconnected from healthy activities and relationships. Helping them reconnect to these vital aspects of a healthy life can be pivotal in their wellness journey. These strategies almost always make you feel better, too! Our peer coaches help teach concerned loved ones how to positively impact their unwell loved one while avoiding detachment and confrontation.       

Myth: You must apply “tough love” if you want them to change.

Reality: Tough love is confrontational and often ineffective. It usually deepens the wounds in an already distressed relationship. Being kind and sympathetic will actually do more to help motivate your loved one because he or she will feel loved and cared about, and worthy of a better life. Cruelty is generally not a useful way to motivate someone to change. Tough love can lead your unwell loved one to feel rejected, unworthy and hopeless.

You can't beat addiction out of somebody, you can't yell loud enough to get them to stop. Being tough doesn’t necessarily mean they will obey your requests – they often react by resisting change. Modern evidence-based behavioral change strategies have shifted towards a boundary-setting approach, as it combines firmness with self-care and support.  

This proven, gentler approach encourages more openness. Combining love, compassion and understanding with rules works better than tough love. Addiction is a family disease and loved ones are often desperate for help themselves. Our loved one coaches are vital because we support and provide a safe space to heal alongside their unwell loved one.  


Myth: I don't need to change anything – it's my unwell loved one who has the problem.

Reality: Because you’re in a relationship, it's healthy to examine and reflect on your own actions and strategies, as well as your own mistakes. This can be difficult to contemplate. Sometimes, your good intentions can be part of the problem. Sometimes you're too busy pointing a finger at your unwell loved one. Sometimes it's simply saying the wrong things and acting in ways that cause the person with addiction to lose hope.  

One of the goals we work on with clients is modeling change for your unwell loved one. Think about the difference between a thermostat and a thermometer. Try to be the thermostat – help set and regulate the tone of the relationship (and communication dynamics) rather than reacting so much. Addiction is a chronic disease and will require lifelong strategies in order to manage it successfully. Having a knowledgeable and supportive loved on the care team makes this journey much smoother.   

Many of our concerned loved ones engage in coaching alongside their unwell loved one. Or both the concerned loved one and the unwell loved one have their own individual coach. Either way, we've learned this is a powerful and effective strategy to help everyone involved get healthy in their own way.

Myth: If I try to be supportive, I’m basically enabling their bad behavior.

Reality: Words like “enabling” and “codependent” come with a lot of baggage. They tend to paralyze people who are already struggling to help their loved one through this challenging disease. It’s more useful to think about behaviors that are healthy or unhealthy. Being supportive is about using healthy behaviors that can help motivate change in your loved one. These are good and can have a really positive impact on you and your struggling family member.


Myth: My spouse/child/sibling/friend has to hit “rock bottom” before I can help.

Reality: This simply isn’t true. It’s also dangerous. The longer you wait, the sicker your loved one gets, and this can have deadly consequences. People who seek help early in the process have more resources to draw upon, such as supportive family or a job. The sooner someone gets help, the better.


Myth: If my loved one relapses, they’re a lost cause.

Reality: Try not to be too discouraged by a relapse, which is a recurrence of symptoms of the disease. Addiction is a chronic illness very similar to type II diabetes or hypertension, meaning it requires lifelong management. Relapse is no more likely with addiction than it is for these other chronic illnesses. Getting well involves changing deeply embedded behaviors, which takes time and effort. Sometimes there are setbacks.

This doesn’t mean that previous treatments failed, because the person with the disease still made progress overall in getting well. A recurrence of symptoms may be a sign the treatment approach or other supports need to reevaluated or strengthened, or that different treatment methods are needed. There is hope. Keep in mind that most people with addiction who suffer a recurrence of symptoms will return to recovery.


Myth: My unwell loved one lacks willpower.

Reality: Some of the strongest people we know were once controlled by their disease. Addiction is a chronic disease that alters the brain both chemically and structurally. It creates a cognitive compulsion and a ubiquitous connection (called cravings) that feels practically irresistible to your unwell loved one. Ongoing use with a perceived inability to stop is a symptom of the disease. Modeling positive change and offering hope helps your unwell loved one see that they do indeed have a choice and help is a real possibility.


Myth: My unwell loved one can’t have an addiction because there’s no addiction in the family.

Reality: While genetic predisposition is one factor contributing to addiction, it's not the only one. Developmental, environmental and circumstantial factors contribute as well. If your loved one is exhibiting symptoms of addiction, it's a good idea to seek help before the problem is too severe.


Myth: My unwell loved one is simply making bad decisions. Maybe I just need to accept they are bad. They certainly act that way.

Reality: People suffering from addiction aren’t bad people. Admittedly, their thinking and behaviors may be altered as a result of the brain damage associated with the disease and drug use, but this doesn’t make them bad or a moral failure. That said, if they can’t acquire their drug of choice at the time a craving hits, they often lie, cheat, manipulate and steal in order to get it. These behaviors, however, are symptoms of the disease and not a result of character defects.


Myth: My unwell loved one is not addicted. He doesn’t use every day, has no DUI’s and he has a job.   

Reality: The American Society of Addiction Medicines defines addiction as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”

Someone who doesn’t use daily, holds a job and has managed to avoid a DUI could easily meet this criteria. Addiction is all about self-harm. Ask yourself this question: Is someone harming themselves, and despite knowing this, they continue? That’s a simple way to determine there’s a problem.  


Myth: I must be flawed in some way. I learned that my loved one has been addicted for years and I had no idea!

Reality: Addiction sufferers often develop a high degree of skill for hiding their addiction. They can be so good at it that even their closest loved ones will not be fully aware of the problem. The deterioration caused by an addiction means it is probably not possible to hide the evidence indefinitely, but addiction sufferers are able to fool others for a long time. They can be so good at it that even when they admit to their substance use problems, other people may find it hard to believe them.


Myth: Many concerned loved ones become codependent, and this is bad.

Reality: There is good news here. You can't become codependent because codependency is a myth. It's another example of how concerned loved ones have been fundamentally misunderstood for a long time.  

The idea that concerned loved ones sometimes develop a disorder that causes them to "enable" their unwell loved ones, thus keeping them sick, still lingers — despite being unscientific and straight-up harmful. But you may have heard (and will likely continue to hear) quite a bit about the concept of "codependency." Simply put, it is an unscientific theory that gained attention in the 1980’s, and unfortunately still infiltrates our national conversation about how concerned loved ones deal with the addiction of their unwell loved one. Addiction often brings chaos and trauma to people's lives. Concerned loved ones sometimes do develop unhelpful and unhealthy behavioral adaptations to these circumstances. These unhealthy adaptations, however harmful, are quite normal under these circumstances. Concerned loved ones can and do learn positive coping and communication strategies that effectively help themselves and often their unwell loved one.   


Myth: My unwell loved one has a problem but I would know if this was really an addiction.

Reality: Only a certified alcohol and other drug professional can determine if someone has an addiction. A quality assessment is required to determine if addiction is present. These professionals also determine the severity of the disease and provide a recommended course of action. Any action taken as a result of the assessment is up to the patient.

A Face It TOGETHER coach can help you find a clinician to perform an assessment. Assessments are very often covered by health insurance plans. This is often a great place to start a wellness plan, in partnership with a coach.

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