I was leaving a meeting one night when someone new pulled me aside to ask a question: “My friend’s daughter has gotten herself into some trouble because of alcohol. How can I help my friend?”
I have been asked this question, or some version of it, over and over again. She continued, “I don’t want to give out private information. And, I don’t think her child is an alcoholic, but alcohol is a part of this situation.”
It can feel overwhelming to be a good friend in times like these. What is helpful? What could hurt? How do we really know the difference? If you don’t have the same shared life experience, what can you do to help your friend or family member?
An Ignatian Approach to Support
Alcohol and drugs can create many problems. Whether a friend’s loved one has a problem with alcohol or alcohol has caused a problem, I think that my suggestions would be the same.
Let me first say that I am not an addiction counselor or medical person. What I offer is my experience, strength and hope. I have spent the last 10 years practicing a 12-step program and studying its connections to Ignatian Spirituality. As my program slogan says, “Take what you like and leave the rest.”
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7 Ways to Support a Friend Navigating Family Addiction
I’ve come up with a list of actions that have helped me that I like to offer to friends who are looking for a way to support their friends and family members who are affected by the addictions of others.
1. Educate yourself on addiction.
In my 12-step program, we learn that addiction is a disease. I like to break the word down: dis-ease. Because those who misuse drugs or alcohol experience dis-ease, they often use mind-altering substances to change the way that they feel.
Understanding the disease helps you to look at those who suffer with compassion instead of judging them based upon their behavior while they are under the influence.
2. Understand that addiction is a family disease.
Just like their addicted loved ones use drugs or alcohol to change the way that they feel, family members like to fix, control, or manage their loved ones in an effort to control the situation. The illusion of control sometimes makes us feel safe. It is the way that we quiet our dis-ease.
Like our loved ones must admit that they are powerless over drug or drink, we have to admit that we are powerless over our addicted loved ones. You are just as powerless over your friend or family member’s situation. Because you are powerless, remember to ask God about every single decision. Don’t forget He is the Power! You just have to let Him be in charge. Pray without ceasing!
The best way to help your friend is to listen to them. When we accompany a friend through the hard places, that is the best gift that you can give. Addiction carries so much stigma that many people suffer in silence. Another 12-step slogan suggests that, “We are as sick as our secrets.” Science backs that up. Allowing your friend to bring their secret out into the light is a big first step towards healing.
4. Try to listen with unconditional love.
Your friend or family member will try to protect their loved one from the stigma that this disease carries. A psychologist named Carl Rogers came up with the concept called “unconditional positive regard” for sessions with his clients where he stayed supportive and accepting regardless of what the client told him. He found that this helped them to feel safe sharing difficult things with him.
In other words, offer unconditional love to your friend or family member no matter what they tell you. Remember they can be angry with their loved one. It may be harder for them to accept your anger towards their loved one.
5. Remember the three C’s.
Remind your friend or family member of what 12-step programs call the three C’s: You didn’t cause the addiction; you can’t control the addiction and you will not be able to cure the addiction.
This helps many people to alleviate the guilt and shame that often accompanies this disease.
6. Help them focus on themselves.
Ask your friend or family member to take all of the energy that they have put on their addicted loved one and put it back on themselves. God takes care of our loved ones if we will get out of the way. Our loved ones will always pay more attention to what we do rather than what we say. Modeling good self-care is a very big deal.
7. Connect them to services.
You cannot be all things to your friend or family member. But you can help them find support where they need it. Jesus taught us to accompany others in difficult times.
- If there is concern for the safety and well-being of your friend or family member, click here.
- The 12-step group for friends and family members of alcoholics (because you are a friend, this meeting is open to you, too).
- Spiritual Direction (some spiritual directors have 12-step experience, too).
- Ignatian Spirituality Retreats offer wonderful Ignatian retreats. Most retreat houses have recovery retreats at least once a year.
- Father Tom Weston Retreats. Father Tom is one of my favorites. He is a recovering alcoholic/addict and Al-anon member. He has online retreats available as well.
- My website that hosts many articles on addiction, as well as my book, Helping Families Recover from Addiction: Coping, Growing and Healing with 12-Step Practices and Ignatian Spirituality.
Written by Jean Heaton. Find out more about her here.
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