I Have This Friend…

The only thing worse than experiencing all the losses and hardships addiction will throw in your path firsthand is to watch a close friend or relative experience this. Whether it’s your parent or your best friend, a dear aunt or your little sister, the urge is the same – to do anything in your power to help them kick the habit and get better. The question is: how? Short of throwing yourself upon the tracks, what can a friend do to help someone struggling with addiction? And as a Christian, what is your obligation to your friend and to your faith?

While every situation is different, and every family is different, the guiding principles are the same. And they aren’t pretty. Terms like codependency, enabling, and “tough love” might sound harsh or even blaming to a family member who is desperate to help a loved one, but detaching with love is key. An addict or alcoholic can be rather like a drowning person: in their desperation to maintain their access to their substance, they will do nearly anything and harm anyone. Anything that anyone does to help them avoid the negative consequences of their alcohol or drug use supports the addiction, not the recovery.

What Would Jesus Do?

Before we talk about what a person can do, a few reminders are in order. You are no help to anyone if the act of helping is injuring you. You have a responsibility first and foremost to yourself and your own children, parents, spouse, etc. Stay strong in your faith, pray, and ask for guidance from your pastor or a therapist if you find that your emotions are running amok. It is normal and healthy to feel angry, even rageful, at what addiction can do to a loved one, but you must acknowledge and deal with these feelings, lest they drag you down. Addiction is a progressive disease – that means that as time goes on, it gets worse. And that means that the bad things that happen: DWIs, car accidents, legal problems, stealing, and so on get worse, not better. Broken promises and betrayals are part of this disease and should be expected. The pain and heartache that they cause the people staying connected with the addicted person is deep and can tear people and families apart.

To combat this destructive process, you have to face the truth. Friends and family members of addicts or alcoholics have their own first step that is parallel to the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous: You are powerless over the addicted person. You cannot change another person. You can’t even make them want to change themselves. Powerlessness and surrender are as important to family members or friends as they are to the person struggling with the addiction. As these struggles arise, really all you can do is pray for strength for both your loved one and yourself.

Addiction thrives on denial, and almost always counters everything that Jesus taught us is right. They often present as outright lies. “I only had one drink, Officer.” “I only drink after the kids go to bed.” “I smoke because it relaxes me, it actually makes me a better driver-cook-mother-etc.” Your friend or loved one may really believe the lies but you should know, feel, and speak only the truth. This is the time when keeping in mind what Jesus would do is going to be the best. Don’t allow your sense of loyalty to the person somehow morph into covering up for them or shading the truth. Speak the truth: “You have an addiction. God still loves you. I still love and care about you but I can’t pretend that you don’t have a problem.” Your friend won’t like it, and might even shun your company if you hold steadfastly to the truth, but it is your only weapon against this disease.

Boundaries are also key. Loving your friend but keeping clear and even rigid boundaries means disappointing your friend when he or she asks you for money, or for you to call in sick for them, or let them stay with you “just for a little while.” At first this might feel like it is in conflict with your Christian beliefs: how can I turn my back on my friend or loved one? Shouldn’t I share what I have and practice generosity and kindness? What are Christian values if not to help those in need? While all this is true, addiction needs to be understood more thoroughly, because true help for the person suffering will be perceived as abandonment at first. When you give money, or access to your home, or any other concrete assistance to a person who is still actively using the substance, you are helping the addiction, not the recovery. Make sure your offer to help has clear boundaries or expectations, such as: “you may stay here as long as you are not using.” And follow through: if your loved one uses drugs or alcohol, you must follow through with whatever consequence you have agreed upon (e.g. you will take them to a rehab or detoxification unit, hospital or other treatment facility).

Love can be unconditional, but access to your home, money, friends, telephone or car does not need to be. You can love, accept, and support a person but still have boundaries and limits. Love the person but reject the addiction by refusing to be complicit with all that comes along with it: the lies, the collateral damage, the betrayal. This all sounds just fine until you find your loved one despairing and broken, pleading with you for one more chance. That is when you’ll find your faith tested and your resolve challenged. Be open to receiving help for your own struggle. Alanon is a self help group that exists specifically to help the loved ones of alcoholics or addicts manage their own feelings and reactions. Pray, meditate, and stay connected to strong people who support you. Addiction is a tough disease but faith is tougher.