If you love an addict, one emotion you’re sure to feel a lot of is anger. Addiction drives people to cross boundaries. They’ll take, then take some more. They’ll test your patience and your love. They’ll ask for forgiveness and promise not to repeat their mistakes. Then, they’ll do it all over again.
Anger is normal, natural and healthy. It can also eat you up inside if you don’t keep it in check. “It’s very easy for family members to be angry with the person who has a drug or alcohol problem,” says David Sack, MD, a board certified psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Elements Behavioral Health. “They might say, ‘this person is choosing to continue to use and to drink and they brought this on themselves.’ There’s a part of that that’s true and part of it that isn’t true.”
When your loved one has broken yet another promise, you feel so betrayed and angry; it’s hard to see straight and difficult to think objectively. Here are some reminders of what part of their substance abuse your loved one needs to own and what part is about the disease and nature of addiction.
What You Can’t Be Angry About
The fact that they have an addiction
A large body of research tells us that addiction is a disease of the brain. About half of the risk is hereditary, meaning people can have a genetic predisposition for substance abuse. “Family members must come to grips with the fact that the person who they’re frustrated with or angry with didn’t choose this path for themselves,” says Dr. Sack.
Like other chronic illnesses such as asthma, hypertension and diabetes, relapse is often part of addiction recovery. In fact, research shows that relapse rates for drug and alcohol abuse is similar to other chronic diseases – around 40 to 60%. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating to see your loved one return to drug or alcohol use after they’ve gotten clean, but unfortunately, it happens. The hope is that they take the lessons learned from relapse and use them to strengthen their recovery going forward.
That they can’t just stop
When people become addicted to drugs or alcohol, it makes it nearly impossible to stop using these substances without specialized addiction treatment. They may experience excruciating withdrawal symptoms and overpowering cravings when trying to quit. One reason people develop a dependence is because they have a very different experience of drugs or alcohol than people who don’t become addicted to them. “They may find it relaxes them in a way that someone who didn’t become addicted doesn’t get, or rewards them or pleasures them in a way than someone who doesn’t become addicted doesn’t get,” says Dr. Sack. “This difference about how attracted they are to use that drug again is what seems to be inherited in some people.”
Recovery is a full-time job. People don’t go to treatment and come back cured. In order to prevent relapse, your loved one will need to engage in “recovery upkeep” that may take time away from family or social obligations. This is especially true in the first few months of recovery. Activities may include attending 12-step meetings, therapy appointments, aftercare groups and participating in self-care measures such as exercise, meditation and spiritual practices.
What You Can Be Angry About
Unwillingness to get help
It’s on your loved one to get better. You can be there for them, you can even offer to help them get the treatment they need, but they must accept that help. When they realize their drug and alcohol abuse is harming themselves and others and still won’t accept help, you can be frustrated for good reason. “Someone who’s become addicted is often not doing anything about it,” says Dr. Sack. “They are living in their addiction and living for that reward because their brain has been rewired for that drug, so they’re no longer making good decisions about it.” Assert your boundaries and detach with love, and keep encouraging them to accept help.
Putting themselves in triggering situations
One of the most important lessons people learn about staying sober is not to tempt their resolve. If your loved one is going to their old haunts or hanging out with people from their drug-using days, they’re putting themselves at risk for relapse. Let them know you will not support them when they position themselves in the line of fire.
As the loved one of someone with an addiction, you probably already know about the importance of boundaries. Part of not enabling your addicted loved one is establishing clear boundaries for behaviors and situations you will not tolerate. Once you’ve made your loved one aware of these boundaries, if they try to cross them, reassert those boundaries and let them deal with the consequences.
Not following aftercare plans
If your loved one has attended drug rehab, they likely have an aftercare plan to help them stay sober. Following that aftercare plan is especially important in those first several months when the risk for relapse is high. There’s good cause for frustration if your loved one is not taking the steps they know are needed to safeguard their sobriety. You might remind them of how hard they worked to get sober and how important it is that they follow through with recovery activities.
Be Kind to Yourself
Addiction is a sinister disease. It’s unfair to both those who suffer from it and their loved ones. Know that the rollercoaster of emotions you feel are normal and that you can’t be angry with yourself or blame yourself for your loved one’s drug or alcohol abuse. Try to hold your boundaries with your loved one, while also having compassion for what you’re both going through. “No one wants to be a drug addict,” says Dr. Sack. “They didn’t wake up and say, ‘I’d really like to be an alcoholic today.’”