When you care about someone who’s struggling with addiction, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the minutiae of their issues: Are they safe? When did they eat last? Are they feeling lonely? What else could I be doing to help?
But just like the flight safety demonstration that tells you to put your oxygen mask on before helping others, to best assist your friends and family members, you first have to take care of yourself.
Job No. 1: Protect Your Health
Caring for someone who is battling substance abuse can quickly turn into a full-time job, and it’s far too easy to send your own needs to the back of the line. Fight that urge; do everything you can to keep yourself physically and mentally healthy. Eat right, get regular exercise, and try to fit in your eight hours of sleep. In addition, make sure to keep up with your health checkups, and spend some time letting it all out with a therapist of your own.
Build Your Own Support System
Aside from safeguarding your personal health, one of the best things you can do is to empower yourself with information. Research addiction and substance abuse resources online and read what you can (from reputable sources, of course). Then supplement that information with some critical offline activities. Check into support groups for caregivers. Attend an Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meeting to hear from others who’ve had similar experiences and to share your stories. Be forewarned: Caring for a loved one who is addicted to drugs or alcohol can feel isolating and lonely, but it shouldn’t. The reality is that addiction and substance abuse affects more than 20 million Americans over the age of 12. Don’t be afraid to lean on someone who’s been in your spot, and then pay it forward when you can.
Feed Your Soul
Life can be stressful, and the “heavy” experiences that come with loving someone with a substance addiction are enough to add anxiety and tension to anyone’s plate. If you’re not careful, you could find yourself feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Inoculate yourself against the unavoidable stress by making a list of things you love, activities that fuel your personal fire. Then once you have the list, make sure you SCHEDULE those activities, which ensures they don’t get deprioritized when the days get rough. Visit with friends, keep a solo appointment to find your quiet spot and read, try that new restaurant down the street, or catch a movie matinee for a temporary change of scenery.
When your friend or family member is hurting, it’s only natural to want to help them. But it’s important to determine whether your behavior and actions are helpful or whether they veer into the land of enablement. Helpful behavior fosters progress in the individual’s path toward sobriety; enabling behavior, on the other hand, preserves the status quo or even causes the person to lose ground. Examples of enabling behavior include loaning the addict money (which they may use to buy drugs or alcohol), making excuses for their poor behavior, and helping with their day-to-day responsibilities (cleaning their apartment, caring for their kids, picking up groceries). With enabling behavior, your intentions are good, but the results are not. Your best bet is to help them access treatment and other support resources, but stop short of offering anything that might prevent them from experiencing the full consequences of their poor behaviors.
Helping a friend or family member overcome addiction or substance abuse can be a tricky balancing act. To ensure that you’re able to assist, you have to make self-care your first priority. Stay healthy, feel your passions and interests, say no to enabling, and create your own support system … because you are ill-equipped to help others if you’re also struggling.