When You Love Someone Who Needs Help and You Don't Know What to Do


Adapted from A Vision for Change: How to help Someone with Addiction or Mental Illness

Leaving families out of mental health or addiction treatment is common practice, but the fact is that treatment is more efficient and more likely to be successful when families are on the team. However, being on the team may not be what you have imagined. You don’t get to decide whether your loved one takes medications, or whether he attends 12-step meetings and has a sponsor. Those are decisions for the person seeking help, under the advice of experienced and trusted professionals and people in recovery. Family members are not the primary decision makers about the day-to-day management of treatment.

            As a family member (or supportive other), you should educate yourself and become part of the team by managing the problems at home from your side. You learn to accept responsibility for your own shortcomings and unhealthy behaviors, and you model growth. You urge your loved one to start treatment, and you urge him or her to stay in treatment. You don’t do that by arguing and trying to control things; instead you nudge someone toward treatment by making yourself healthier and clearer minded, and knowing when and how to press your loved one toward change.  

If your loved one needs to begin a recovery process and s/he is not willing to participate, or if s/he starts treatment and then stops, you’ll have to learn to stay calm and make changes yourself until treatment seems like a good idea.

            You encourage recovery by allowing the person who needs help to do more on his or her own, and accept the consequences and pressures of daily life without you there to grease the wheels and make things smooth and easy. You might need to stop paying for things. You might need to stop clearing the way. You may need to stop covering up mistakes, or making sure that your loved one always looks good to the outside world.

When you change the way you offer emotional and financial support, life places a gentle pressure on the loved one to do something to help himself.

Families often feel that they lack the power to influence a loved one, especially when active efforts to persuade them to change have fallen on deaf ears. However, feelings of hopelessness may simply be part of the family disease. It’s common to feel like you can’t help, even when you can. If your sick loved one lives at home, or if you provide support, you have the power to begin removing some of the tools that fuel the illness and lack of recovery. You can turn off the internet, or encrypt access. You can take away the car, or remove the battery from the car, or hide the keys. You can hide the cell phone with the drug contacts, and opt for a low-tech flip phone or no phone at all for a while. You can limit privacy for deal-making or substance use or all manner of other unhealthy behavior by taking the door off the bedroom.

            Even when your addict doesn’t live in your home, if you’re still helping, it may be time to peel back that help. You may need to stop paying the rent, especially if having a roof over her head is keeping her from facing the problems she needs help with. It’s probably time to stop covering for her, and it’s long past time to stop lying to others to paint your sick loved one in a better light or to normalize what is happening. It’s also past time to stop calling the school, the employer, the landlord, or anyone who is trying to hold your sick loved one accountable for the improvements that need to happen.

Sometimes families face the difficult decision to cut off almost all support in the hopes of getting their loved one to have a reason to get help. When you reach this point, it may already be time to bring in a professional interventionist. Things are reaching a crisis point, and your loved one is not responding to your efforts to urge them into getting help.

Removing support may be the final squeeze for some. Support comes in many forms, and it not just financial. Families may have to stop problem solving for the member who needs help but doesn’t truly take ownership of the need to change. When you do the legwork and solve the problems caused by addiction, you may actually be interfering with the growth of your loved one in need. Solving their own problems and cleaning up their own messes make good tools for learning.

Families may have to stop intervening in relationships. It may make sense that you should try to keep your sick sibling’s spouse from filing for divorce, but what if being served with divorce papers is the wake-up call that finally brings about a desire for help?

And, of course, in order to gain some traction, you may have to cut off the money. Telling your loved one that rent is contingent on being in treatment could help her accept the help she needs. But you have to be willing to follow through on this kind of threat if you make it. Hollow threats undermine trust and progress.

Reaching the point that you know you have to pull away your support in order to push your loved one into help before it’s too late can be devastating. In fact, many loved ones simply cannot take these kinds of steps. Leaving someone you love homeless and hungry feels terrifying and morally wrong, and yet at the same time, making it convenient to refuse help cannot be the answer.


Posted on June 17, 2019 .