Addiction: Caregiving and “Healthy Helping and Giving”

Addiction: Caregiving and “Healthy Helping and Giving”

As a caregiver, how do you support a person with an addiction without unintentionally enabling the addiction? Also, how do you not let the addiction take over your own life and the rest of your family’s life?

Set Boundaries

Dr. Shawn Meghan Burn’s concept of “healthy and unhealthy helping and giving” involves boundary setting.* In the context of addiction, what would it mean for a caregiver to set and keep boundaries? It translates into drawing on your strength and courage to say “no” to the person you are caring for. Here are some examples:
  • No, I won’t drive you to the liquor store.”
  • “No, I won’t clean up all the evidence of your night of binging.”
  • “No, I won’t lie for you and tell your parents we can’t come for dinner because you have a bad headache.”
  • “No, I won’t give you money for your drugs.”
  • “No, I won’t pay your fine.” 
The point is not to punish but to let the person with the addiction experience the natural consequences of their addiction. It can be challenging to set and keep boundaries and let natural consequences unfold. This is in part because you do not know how many negative consequences there needs to be or how severe the negative consequences need to be before (or even if) the person will seek treatment. You may need support in learning how to say “no,” to remain consistent, and to do so from a place of clarity rather than frustration and anger.

Related to saying “no” is the importance of following through with consequences you have said there will be. In fact, if you aren’t ready to follow through with said consequences (for example, “if I come home from work and find you drunk, I am leaving you”), then it is best to say nothing. Otherwise, what you say will lose its meaning. These statements can become empty threats which may result in the person with the addiction failing to live up to their agreements (by not getting help, for example, which they may have agreed to).

Also, if this is a change for you - that is, moving from unhealthy to healthy helping and giving - you can expect some resistance as you change the relationship dynamic and set boundaries to your helping and giving. This resistance can take the form of anger, attempting to make you feel guilty, accusing you of not caring, not loving them, not being loyal, as well as crying, and/or pleading. Any or all of these reactions may “work” on you, so to speak, and you may “cave in.” It would be wise to anticipate this resistance and prepare yourself for it.

Another aspect of boundary setting is recognizing that this is not your addiction and it does not need to define or restrict your own life in all ways. For example, if you had plans for some social gathering and the person you are caring for doesn’t want to go because he or she is hungover, follow through with the original plan and go yourself or with the rest of the family. Sacrificing your life and/or the rest of your family’s life really doesn’t help matters in the short or long run. It is a breeding ground for resentment, frustration, and anger. In short, remember it is their addiction and not yours.

Related to this, it is important to be aware that you can’t control someone else’s behaviour and this includes addictive behaviour. Trying to monitor the person’s drug or alcohol use puts you in a parental role and typically leads to resentment and anger. Offering unsolicited advice also breeds resentment and resistance. You really can’t fix this. What you can “fix” or control is yourself and how you respond to the addiction and the person with the addiction. Be as passionate about your own health and wellbeing as you have been about the person you are caring for who has the addiction.

Get Your Own Support

Anyone closely involved with someone who has an addiction (as a caregiver, partner, spouse, child, parent, friend, etc.) is advised to seek out support. This may be in the form of a 12-step program such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon or it may be with the assistance of a counsellor, therapist, and/or an addictions specialist. Setting appropriate helping and giving boundaries is actually a skill and as such, may need to be learned with some assistance from the experts. Also, you very well may need an avenue, place, or person to help you process your feelings so that you can bring emotional responsiveness, not reactivity, to the problem. You are likely experiencing a range of intense emotions from exasperation to helplessness, powerlessness, frustration, and anger. These are understandable and common reactions.  Unleashing these feelings on the person with the addiction however, won’t help either of you. It can also set up or contribute to a power struggle.

Stay Safe

While the support of family and friends is really important and does make a difference, this support should not be at the expense of your safety or the safety of your family. If the person you are caring for is violent, do what is necessary to keep yourself and your family safe. Call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number if you or others are at risk right now.  Also, when possible, do not allow the person with the addiction to put your safety or the safety of others at risk (for example, when the person is considering driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol). In fact, in the name of everyone’s safety, you should call 9-1-1 if you know or even suspect that a person is driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  This can easily become one of those nasty regrets that leave you thinking “I should have called” or “Why didn’t I call?”  By responsibly addressing safety, you can help prevent the life-threatening consequences that can result from driving under the influence.
*If you are interested in learning more about why it can be so challenging to set limits or boundaries and you would like more strategies and suggestions for how you can practice this limit setting, consider reading Dr. Burn’s book:
Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling & Other Dysfunctional Giving, 2016.

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