When You Love an Addict

When you love an addict, it is a painful and confusing journey.  

The effects of addiction are like a stone being thrown into a pond. There seems to be no ending to the spillover of pain, drama, intensity and insanity. The whole family system is imprinted, and we all suffer.

Concepts of recovery for family and loved ones include:

  • Understanding the basics of how addiction wires the brain.
  • Gaining some clarity of how addiction affects personality, mood and behaviour.
  • Taking inventory of family roles (systems that affect family functioning).
  • Looking at common mistakes or pitfalls loved ones make.
  • Being aware of healthy actions for family and friends.
  • Seeing hope for the addiction.

Understanding the Addict’s Brain 

Active addiction and early recovery create a significant impact on the brain and important regions that foster executive thinking, reason, logic and emotional regulation. To try to be logical with an addict in acute addiction and even early recovery is like trying to reason with someone who has just been in a car accident. The frontal cortex functioning is low and the amygdala (emotional regulation) is super sensitive to perceptions of stress and conflict.

Post Acute Withdrawals (PAWS) can cause the healing addict’s brain to appear to be similar to that of someone who suffers from a mood disorder, depression, ADHD and other mental health issues. PAWS can affect sleep, appetite, coordination, immunity and other nervous system and endocrine functions.  

The Basal Ganglia (rewards/motivation/pleasure) has been over-activated with the dopamine response, now exhausted, and unable to produce amounts for even normal functioning. The Nucleus Accumbens (the major part of BG) has been oversaturated with dopamine, so has developed a strong dependency because of oversaturation to drug exposure. Essentially, this region creates atrophy and exhaustion, leaving the addicted person feeling unmotivated and depressed.

Understanding Addict Consciousness  

Because addiction impacts the region of the brain associated with logic and ethics, it leaves the addict to appear to be incredibly self-centered and self-serving. Addicts start to think like “victims,” as if the whole world is against them. They have a limited view of how their suffering impacts others. Their egos can appear to be greater than life or they appear to be incredibly depleted of self-esteem. They don’t know how to feel “right-sized.”

Inside, addicts feel inadequate, small, hopeless, guilty, full of shame, angry, resentful, discontent, irritable, unworthy and a mass of other heavy emotions. They feel they are unique, and that no one will understand them. They fear abandonment and commitment at the same time. They fear success and failure at the same time. They often suffer from a low-grade desire to just die. They have an intense fear of who they would be without the substance. They often have anger toward any concept of “Higher Power.”

Family Roles of Addiction   

In families where a member has an addiction, individuals take on certain roles.  

  • The “Hero” is a responsible, self-sufficient perfectionist.
  • The “Enabler,” or caretaker/rescuer, tries to keep everyone happy.
  • The “Scapegoat,” or problem child, divert attention.
  • The “Invisible Child” is the quiet one who flies under the radar.
  • The “Clown,” or mascot, is the comedian who uses humour to decrease the stress.
  • The “Addict” is the focal point and source of conflict.

Healthy Actions for Family, Friends 

Counsellors advise healthy actions family members and friends can take with people who have addictions. They recommend setting boundaries, saying “No,” getting support like private counselling or with groups such as Al-Anon; practising self-care and taking breaks from the relationship.  

Hope for Addiction 

There is no one silver bullet to heal addiction; however, with even a small desire, there are options that can support a recovery journey.

Refuge Recovery, 12-step and other community support programs offer peer-inspired perspectives along with connection and anonymity. Holistic approaches use treatments that include physical health, nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, meditation and spirituality.  

When Long-Term Treatment is Appropriate 

Families and friends of those with addiction problems may need to consider long-term treatment for the individual when multiple interventions, 30-day programs and other forms of counselling have failed. Long-term treatment is also appropriate when there’s been a traumatic event as a result of drug use; when the addict has not been able to stay sober and is desperate for help; when other conditions are occurring such as PTSD, bipolar disorder or depression; and when the addict has serious health risks like diabetes or COPD. FBN  

Source: ,

By Keelyn Riley, LCSW

Keelyn Riley is a licensed clinical social worker who has been working with addiction since 1994. She is a primary therapist at Back2Basics, a long-term treatment program for addiction. 

Back2Basics combines residential therapeutic counselling with experiential outdoor adventures to treat individuals with substance and alcohol addiction and lead them through rehab and recovery into long-term sober living for a positive meaningful life. The program (up to six months) is designed for young adult males, ages 18 to 30. Clients are exposed to a weekly combination of both wilderness adventures and residential programming. The program is highlighted by spending time in the beautifulserene wilderness where individuals are physically challenged, their minds are cleared and they learn ways to defeat old addictive thinking patterns through various outdoor adventures. 


Day after day I felt it couldn't continue to burn myself out. I looked up at the sky and begged for silence, rest and peace.

I was fatally tired and the last straw had manifest; my partner abandoned me and moved on. Shortly after, circumstances took their toll and I collapsed..

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