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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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How Do You Cope When A Loved One Has An Addiction?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jan 23rd 2009

 One of the toughest problems faced by families today is learning that a husband, wife, son, daughter or another loved one, has an addiction. Whether the addiction is to alcohol or drugs makes little difference to those staring the problem in the face. Upon learning the news of the addiction, the reaction is often shock and dismay.

It is normal for family members to feel crushed, hopeless, frightened and overwhelmed by the problem. Many people react by asking the age old question, "what did I do wrong?" It is also normal to react by appealing to the addicted family member to stop using the drug. (Note: The word "drug" will be used to represent both alcohol and other substances). There is a tendency to appeal to the love and emotions of the drug using individual. Very soon after learning about the problem, many people want to control the person and the situation. They mistakenly believe that they can force the use of substances to end. They think such things as, "If I cry enough, yell enough, control enough, threaten enough, express disappointment enough, threaten divorce enough," the afflicted individual will stop. In fact, the drug abusing person will probably make all types of promises to satisfy all the demands made by family and friends. Soon after, and with huge disappointment and frustration, everyone discovers that the promises were empty and the addiction either resumed or never ended. For many, this becomes a never ending process of emotional storminess that can affect the health and well being of all involved. Why? The answer is that the addiction simply continues either unabated or with great acceleration.

There is a bitter lesson to be learned by every loved one who ever had to deal with this tragedy. That lesson is that there is nothing anyone can do to stop the addictive process. This creates huge feelings of helplessness. In fact, from beginning to end, coping with someone who has an addiction, leaves everyone totally frustrated and helpless.

So, how does one cope?

There is no easy answer to the question of "how to cope." Where a marriage is concerned, there is always the possibility of divorcing the spouse who is abusing substances and sometimes that is the only way out of the situation. However, as many have pointed out to me over the years of working in this area, "you cannot divorce your children, even if they are now adult addicts." This is true, of course. Also, is it not insensitive and cruel to divorce a spouse who is ill with drug abuse?

Harvard Medical School publishes many useful and informative manuals for public consumption that deal with health and mental health issues. One of them is called "Overcoming Addiction: Paths toward recovery," a Special Health Report. This and many other manuals can be ordered at:

If you want to read their specific article, titled, "When a loved one has an addiction" it can be found:

The Harvard report on drug abuse points out that loved ones must take good care of themselves first. They compare this idea to the instructions given during air travel and it is that each passenger must first put on their oxygen mask before helping anyone else, whether someone who is a child or an elderly person.

This notion that each and every individual must first care for their self is vitally important in learning to cope with the addiction of another person. If family and friends make themselves ill over the addiction, it will still not put a stop to its steady progress.

This is the reason why it is important for family members to attend either Al anon or Ala teen meetings. Al-anon is for adults coping with a spouse, child, friend, or family member with an addiction and Ala-teen is for young people whose lives have been affected by someone else's drinking. They are both off shoots of Alcoholics Anonymous. These meetings are free and are comprised of other family members who are coping with the same or similar problem. What is most important is the messages at these meetings are that, 1. The addiction is the fault of no one and, therefore both self blame and blaming of others should stop, and, 2. That family and friends have no control over the addictive process and must finally admit to this painful fact. Meeting places for these organizations can be found on the Internet.

In addition to these types of self help meetings (not instead of) it could be useful for family members to enter psychotherapy. The purpose of the therapy is not to help the addict but the family member who is suffering painful feelings of guilt, anger, depression and confusion. If those aren't enough reasons to seek help then what else is?

Thanks to some of the Television programs that focus on this problem, such as "Intervention," many are now aware that it is possible to stage an intervention in which the addicted individual is confronted with their problem and encouraged to immediately enter a drug rehabilitation program. It is best that this be planned, organized and led by an expert professional in the field of addiction. There are too many "dangerous land mines" for any family to undertake an intervention on their own.

Here are some additional suggestions made by the Harvard manual:

If someone you love has a problem with addiction, there are some things you can do to help:

1. Speak up. Express your concerns about your loved one’s problem in a caring way.

2. Take care of yourself. Seek out the people and resources that can support you. Keep in mind that you are not alone, and try to remain hopeful. Practical help is available in your community.

3. Don’t make excuses. Don’t make it easier for your loved one to use his or her object of addiction by lying to protect him or her from the consequences of that use.

4. Don’t blame yourself. Remember that you are not to blame for this problem and you can’t control it. Allow the person with the problem to take responsibility.

5. Be safe. Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations. Find a friend you can call for assistance.

6. Step back. Don’t argue, lecture, accuse, or threaten. Try to remain neutral.

7. Be positive. Remember that addiction is treatable. You may want to learn about what kinds of treatment are available and discuss these options with your loved one.

8. Take action. Consider staging a family meeting or an intervention.

9. Focus your energies. Encourage your friend or family member to get help, but try not to push.

10. Remember that the only person you can change is yourself. Don’t hesitate to use available resources to help yourself.

Comments and questions are, as always, encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.







Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

aa comment - ld - Oct 15th 2009

years ago i found myself in need of facing  a driniking problem i knew was taking a seriouos turn so i went to aa. i have to say it was very helpful for a while in part thanks to a good sponser who didn't mince words and was very truthful with me. it was good in that it gave me some very valid coping tools. but coping was just not deep enough for me. i found myself frustrated when i was ready to dig deeper into the roots of my problems and although aa is higher power directed and surrender to such is the foudation, i find it very ironic that the higher power there does not have the power of transformation. MINE DOES! AND DID! i too had to leave aa because i too found it to be self- depreciating, and hopeless. i know if someone has a leg cut off, it's not likely they'll grow another one, but they can re-invent themselves and  the Lord can use them in ways they  never would be able to if they had 2 legs. aa i feel is a good place to start, to get the coping skills, and it is good for people to "Pass it on" as they say. "you gotta give it away to keep it" as they also say and God himself says so inthe sacred scriptures. I think the 12 steps are good and right and most wise if they are taught and practied in the I believe) Christian context because as it now people are given the option tochoose thier higher power, be it a light bulb or the only one true omnipotent God of all creation, and sadly, it is rejected around those tables that  there could ever be an ed at the end of the word recover; they are always recovering. While it is true we can never reach the state of perfection in this life i know first hand we can reach the state of victory over addictions. I can say with a clear cocsience that i can now enjoy 1 glass of wine with my dinner  or a bottle of cold beer on a hot day if i'd like i have no desire to be controlled by anything and quiclkly recognize if the "stinkin thinking" as they call it begins to set in. I love sobriety and it comes on many levels and is multi-faceted. All of which i know i could not enjoy were it not fot the transforming power of the God of the bible indwelling me. On my own i know i am powerless and have surrenderd to Him.

Question about not making excuses - Dee - Sep 25th 2009

i understand the reason for not enabling your loved one to continue using by helping make excuses and lying to protect him the consequences. What about when it is an illegal substance? How do you protect yourself and your children from losing your home, family land etc because a spouse is using an illegal substance? Just how open can you be about it? Do you tell the kids that Daddy can’t come to their band concert because he’s high? Do you tell the in-laws that you aren't coming to Sunday dinner because their son is not really sick?

To Sarah - Julian Peron - Jun 11th 2009


Thanks for your post.  It is nice to hear from someone who has moved on and embraced the beauty, courage, strength, freedom, and magic of who you are - which simply cannot be achieved when perpetually deeming oneself powerless or defective or "ab-normie".  I think you hit the nail on the head when you speak of pre-existing negative feelings being reinforced in aa/12 step.  That is precisely my main motivator to protect people from aa.  Supporters of aa often make dramatic statements when someone speaks against it, as if I am preventing people from help and therefore killing people.  If I thought it was helpful, I wouldn't speak out against it.  I do believe that it is damaging, and it has rendered people so hopeless and helpless and powerless and put some in such deep conflict that it has led many to heightened drug/alcohol use, suicide, and death.  I don't say that lightly.  I have experienced it and lost many people who I grew to care deeply about to circumstances such as this.  

More often than not, I believe that one of the reasons people are so fiercely loyal to aa is for the very reason you speak of.  It is an alternative to drug/alcohol use, but with the same emotional payoff.  It seems very often the case that feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, self-loathing, and the like existed before the use of alcohol/drugs, during that use and then in aa/12 step - it is not only perpetuated, but encouraged and demanded, at which point it becomes yet one more obstruction from a person's resolution to that challenge.  For many, that is comfortable and takes the pressure off of change, growth, resolution, freedom, and the responsibilities that accompanies those things.  

I am glad for you that you removed yourself from that obstruction and turned things around for yourself.  I dare say you are quite exceptional.  

All the best,


Counseling Time Limit - Sara - Jun 11th 2009

I counsel people for a living and the last thing that I would ever convey to a client is that he is somehow fundamentally defective, incapable, or powerless.  Instead, I assure them that they are fundamentally good and as capable as anyone is to create a beautiful and fulfilling life.  I draw out the goodness and the strength in people and nourish and build upon those things that they do in fact have, but perhaps have not yet recognized.  In my eyes it is somewhat criminal to convince a person he or she is incapable (powerless) of taking charge of his own life and turning around any issue that he is challenged with. 

If I had a loved one looking for help from an addiction, I would discourage them from AA, NA, etc. or any 12 step group, etc.   I think it is hard (to help) but from my experience, a person needs someone who will stick with them, who believes in them, will not abandon them, tell them good things about themself for as long as it takes, etc.  I spent many years in AA and it took me a long, long time after leaving to get the message I had been given of being powerless and incapable and always wrong and defective and thinking negatively to turn around.  Granted, some of this was there prior, but being in AA reinforced the negative in me.  If it weren't for the counselor I saw after leaving AA sticking with me for a long time and being patient and helping me through, I'd have probably still been thinking that way.  She never put a time limit on me, or gave up on me I should say (because I couldn't keep the perspective she was giving me without reverting back).  Sometimes people might not realize how deeply ingrained the message of powerless or negative feelings might be (for some people, not all, I am sure) whether it came from AA or prior, and those people (like me) needed someone to stick with them as long as it took.  If it came from prior to AA (for me mostly about being wrong all the time and negative), even all the more deeply ingrained it can be.  I can't really imagine most counselors (unless maybe they are in a 12 step group) would give the negative message of a person being fundamentally defective, incapable or powerless to a person.  Some AA sponsors would and think they are counselors, I know mine did for years.  All I am saying is, if a person goes to AA or a 12 step group to get help with their addiction, they will end up with more problems than they started out with, one being absolute self-doubt, speaking for myself.  If the self-doubt was already there, it will be reinforced.  I asked the counselor before even talking to her what she thought about AA and told her my thoughts of it before we even started.  She was on my side.  An ally.  It worked out for me.  I needed a lot of help AFTER leaving AA.  Mostly I just wanted to comment from my own experience about the counseling and how long it can take a person, and all the good words and encouragement might take some a little longer than others to help them bring it out on their own. 

Alateen...not quite - Laura - Jun 8th 2009

"...and Ala teen is for those who has an adolescent with an addiction."

No.  Wrong.  Alateen is for teenagers who have an alcoholic parent.  (As if teenagers needed to be told how powerless they are, how full of character defects they are, how they can never do any better unless they submit their wills to a higher power.)

There's even a 12-step program for pre-teen children from something like six on.  It's Alatot, and thank goodness it's not well known, nor are there very many chapters.  I do believe (but I may be wrong) that it's an Alateen spin-off.

Editor's Note: Thank you for the correction. 

a hideous experience - Julian Peron - Jun 8th 2009

I agree that no one can force a person to quit drugs or alcohol.  It can be a complex issue.  However, I do believe that people can in fact help - even family members can help.  However, a family member can only contribute toward a solution if he is not placing himself in the position of being part of the problem.  It takes love and understanding and that is only available to each of us when we have made profound changes within our own lives.  So yes, the only life you can change is your own, but in doing so, you can beautifully inspire others to do the same.  

As far as alanon, alateen, aa, etc., I would gravely warn anyone from seeking help through those resources.  More often than not, they take a fragile, susceptible person and make things far worse.  I have seen instances where I believe such programs have created addiction rather than recognizing that a teenager, for example, was simply going through a very natural and otherwise temporary experimental marijuana phase or something of the like.  The chaos, hostility, panic, negativity and misconceptions bounding off the walls of aa, alanon, alateen, etc., can have an extraordinarily negative impact on individuals.  

Many years ago I went to 12 step treatment and of course, aa.  It was a hideous experience and it amazes me that 12 step tactics not only continue, but are supported and promoted by seemingly intelligent people - even those from Harvard.  For me personally, it was only when I completely purged myself of the contaminants of 12 step treatment and aa, that I discovered just how very capable and (non diseased) I am and I moved on to find that there are people who can profoundly help and support not only my decision to stop drinking, but also to unravel and overcome the more genuine issues which compelled me to engage in such self-destructive behaviors in the first place.  I am eternally grateful that I had the good sense to reject aa and its corrupt, self-invalidating and erroneous philosophy.  I know far too many individuals who remain caught up in the trap of aa and find themselves in a life of chronic relapse, because of course, they are powerless, diseased, defective and always will be.  Even those who remain sober often remain in a perpetual state of denial and seem detached from reality, which I find extraordinarily sad.  In many ways, just as alcohol or drug abuse becomes the means in which a person invalidates his or her own strengths, uniqueness, capabilities and so on, aa does exactly the same thing.  It becomes an alternative means for someone who finds it too overwhelming to accept his own capabilities and power and greatness, if you will, or chooses not to deal with the truths of his or her own challenges and demands that the focus remain on the symptom (drug/alcohol abuse) rather than the underlying and genuine issues.  Does it not seem a bit pathetic that someone would deem it necessary to attend meetings years and years after stopping drinking/drugging as a means to remain sober?  What was resolved?  Nothing.  12 step claims that there is no cure.  Then why is it that many of us have created and embraced that "cure" and moved on to live fulfilling and successful lives with no meetings or wasted focus on what we don't do (drink or drug), but rather celebrate the achievements and successes of our lives?   

I counsel people for a living and the last thing that I would ever convey to a client is that he is somehow fundamentally defective, incapable, or powerless.  Instead, I assure them that they are fundamentally good and as capable as anyone is to create a beautiful and fulfilling life.  I draw out the goodness and the strength in people and nourish and build upon those things that they do in fact have, but perhaps have not yet recognized.  In my eyes it is somewhat criminal to convince a person he or she is incapable (powerless) of taking charge of his own life and turning around any issue that he is challenged with.  It is unspeakable and irresponsible for people to claim that they (aa, alanon, alateen,) are required - with the only alternative being death,  in order for a person to deal with his or her specific issue with addiction.  I find that I am far more effective in helping a person who I believe in and have faith in and who I see as capable and powerful rather than incapable, diseased or powerless.  It is common sense to me and it surprises me that the folks at Harvard support a non-sensical, faith based and non-scientific approach to the treatment of addiction.  If examined closely and honestly, the principles of aa/12 step are transcended by some basic principles of logic.  

Alanon, Alateen, ACoA - Ray Smith - Jun 8th 2009

I do not understand why the families of alcoholics should consider themselves powerless over the effects of alcoholism and need to turn their will and their lives over to the care of God. That negates Free Will and the idea that God helps those who help themselves.

And why do they have to beseech God to remove their defects of character? Shouldn't we all work on our defects instead of throwing up our hands, claiming powerlessness, demanding God fix us?

All these groups are based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, a splinter group of the Christian sect the Oxford Group, also known as the "First Century Christian Fellowship". They claim to be "spiritual not religious", but demand belief in a "Higher Power", also called "God", that one prays to and Who answers those prayers.

The disease of "codependency"?

These are not self help groups, they tell people they are powerless to help themselves, that only God can "restore you to sanity". They take people that are in emotional turmoil, fill them full of New Age religion, undermine whatever strengths they do have by telling them not to trust their thinking or feelings, turn them all over to God, let Him sort them out. 

I suggest people who are thinking of attending these AA offshoots read "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions":

"The book is a strong critique of the self-help movement, and focuses criticism on other books on the subject matter, including topics of codependency and twelve-step programs. The author addresses the social implications of a society engaged in these types of solutions to their problems, and argues that they foster passivity, social isolation, and attitudes contrary to democracy.....She blames New Age thinking for encouraging "psychologies of victimization." "'m_Dysfunctional,_You're_Dysfunctional"

 "When you have to go into your head," says an Al-Anon friend, "don't go alone. It's not a safe neighborhood."
Hope for Today, published by Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., page 47.

Alcoholic/Addict nurses - Catmom - Jan 30th 2009

I am an RN myself and want to urge the gentleman with the alchoholic & addicted wife to call the board of nursing in his state to report her addiction.  Because she is a nurse, and not in some other non-licensed job, he has this "ace up his sleeve" that he can use to force her to get help. 

The board will intervene with her and she is statistically more likely to successfully stop her addictions if her professional license depends on it.

Further, if he does not report her, he is placing her patients at risk due to her impairment.  Even if she is abusing substances "only" when not at work, this will affect her ability to properly care for her patients. 

(This of course ignores the fact that she is destrpying her own life and the lives of her family members with her addictive acting out)

I agree with Allan  that the original commenter is behaving very passively so I doubt he will follow my suggestion, but I am offering it nontheless.

Out of Context - Allan N Schwartz - Jan 29th 2009

Hi JR,

Good to hear from you again. However, I must point out that you are taking one sentence and removing it from it's context. The context is that family tends to react, upon learning of an addiction, by "taking control of the addicted loved one and putting a stop to the the ongoing use of substances." The point being, as you know, that no one can stop another from using unless and until that person wants to or is ready to stop. Most families end up learning this after the bitter disappointment of not being able to stop the loved one.

As for Alanon and AA, we continue to disagree. I have known too many people who had excellent outcomes with AA and with Alanon. And, sometimes, fellow upset people, such as family members of an addicted person, are better able to help one another than all the professionals in the world.

Please understand that this particular article is directed at the families of those who are addicted. There is terrible suffering that occurs as they struggle to understand what has happened, why its happened and what, what they can do.

Dr. Schwartz

Leaving Sunday - Allan N Schwartz - Jan 29th 2009

Hi Colin D.,

Your wife has a serious problem with drinking and now she wants you to leave and you are leaving. Why? Just because she wants you to leave does not mean that you must. In fact, you are married and have children. The home is shared equally and she has no right to tell you to leave. You are a husband and father and the children need you and a sober mom. I would advise you strongly and IN MY OPINION, that you stay where you are and seek legal counsel from a good lawyer. You need to protect your rights, that of your children and get help for your wife. Nurses and Doctors are among the people who become addicted partially because of the stress they face on a daily basis. The nurses association provides help for addicted nurses and without them losing their jobs. Stop being so passive and get yourself and your family some help.

Dr. Schwartz

i'm loosing my family on sunday - colin d. - Jan 28th 2009
i'm a 41 year old business man "printing company, 18 years" outgoing, in control strong outdoors type, type 1 personality. i just told my 5 and 7 year old girls that i'm leaving on sunday. i'm shaking, crying, and feeling worse than i've ever felt in my life and doing my best with this keyboard. My wife wants me to leave. she has been drinking heavily, popping bills and anything else she has. she has projected all of her issues on me. she's a nurse, 2nd shift. she comes home late and drunk always now, progressively getting worse. she has been horrible towards me for months and when i confront her it's ME, i'm the reason she is abusing. now....i have to i love my girls so much that i would die a 100 times for them. now i have to be the looser. i appreciate the info but its not helping type this through my soaking wet face and hyperventilating shaking body. i don't have any to reach out to at this moment but this f-ing computer. i need to get a hold of my self and cook some dinner for the real victims....... my children. excuse any punctuality probs.

Stepping out. - JR - Jan 26th 2009

Hello, Allan.  Hope all goes well.

I could say a lot about the head article but, I am sure, you will be glad that I confine myself to one comment, and one (well, more or less one)question.

Comment - "there is nothing anyone can do to stop the addictive process".  Really?  In that case, an awful lot of people may as well just decide to do a "Jeffrey Bernard" (famous British journalistic inebriate, by the way) and Die Disgracefully with a Bourbon in one hand and a Bud in the other. You meant, I assume, that no third party can do anything to stop the active addictive behaviour of a problem drinker/user; and that only the afflicted person themselves can do something.  The afflicted person surely qualifies as some sort of "anyone"?  Unless, of course, nobody really can do anything, and we must rely solely on a Higher Power ... which brings me to -

Question - I know from earlier comments that your experience as a mental health professional has persuaded you of the merits of 12 Step recovery programs.  Fine, but ... are  you really comfortable with uttering unqualified endorsements of the 12 Step approach, when it should at this stage be clear that not everybody agrees?  Or is it that everyone who has problems of conscience, belief, evidence or personal integrity when it comes to submitting to the 12 Step approach is, necessarily, deluded, in denial, or just intellectually maladjusted, and just needs a little touch of therapy or ... what else ... to help them see the light?

By the way - Al-Anon, a spiritual cure for the non-sick - er ... this is a sensible idea?  One of my earliest feelings that something was not quite right about Stepping came when my (non-drinking) sister contacted Al-Anon in an effort to see how she could help me.  All she wanted was some general information - and their response was to try to recruit her to their variant of Stepping.  I can only say that I am glad I never persuaded my dear wife to attend Al-Anon.  If I had, we would definitely be divorced by now.  I have no doubt about this.  After all, she did draft the divorce legislation obtaining in these here parts ...!

Yours from the Black Hole of Europe,



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