Coping with a Substance Abusing Family Member

It’s an unfortunate circumstance that your immediate or extended family, someone is a substance abuser. Maybe it’s alcoholism, maybe it’s heroin, maybe it’s prescription pills, maybe it’s marijuana, maybe it’s cocaine, maybe it just began last week, but there are no maybes about this person having a problem. It’s not just affecting this person anymore. It’s affecting the family. It’s affecting you.

There is no textbook on this per se, but there are levels of substance abuse, if you will. It’s sort of a ‘you-know-how-bad-it-is-when-you-see-it’ type of situation. This is true with all substances, too. Not all problematic drinkers are on the same level of abuse, and neither are all heroin users. Of course, any and all abuse of substances is dangerous and potentially fatal, so don’t get us wrong. We’re confident, though, you know what we mean.

The reason we bring this up? This article is not about how to intervene. This article is not about how to step in and get an addicted family member help. If you have an addicted family member and you feel as though he or she is in danger and/or out of control and needs immediate help, you get that person immediate help. So, before we give you our five ways to cope with having a substance-abusing family member, read the following if this person is addicted and not just abusing.

How to Step In when Necessary

Step one is to find an intervention specialist by searching online and/or by using the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline or calling Arrow Passage Recovery at 844-347-0543.

Step two is to form the intervention group. You’re going to want a handful of people who all care deeply about the addicted person but also want very badly for that person to get help.

Step three (or the only step if you prefer to not intervene but rather seek advice/help in a less confrontational fashion) is to reach out to a substance abuse treatment center, or to several, and speak with professionals. The overwhelming majority of people employed with treatment centers will be more than happy to spend some time answering any questions you have. If in a rare instance you call and find the center unwilling to converse, try a different one.

Prelude to the Five Ways

Okay so here we are. You have a family member who is either abusing drugs for sure, or is under high suspect for doing so. It’s not out of control, but it’s a problem and you need to learn how to deal with it. Here’s how. These five bits of advice are in no order whatsoever. They are all equally important in both dealing with the situation in a healthy way and maintaining your own sanity during these times.

Again, if this family member is spiraling out of control, stop reading this and seek professional help. Please do not use this list as a way to turn a blind eye to something you know is a problem, and even could be the eventual downfall of a human being. Exercise our advice with caution.

Five Ways to Cope with a Drug-Using Family Member


Making any kind of claim without knowing anything is making an assumption, and we all know how the old saying goes. So educate yourself on drug abuse and addiction. You need to be aware of the signs and hints that someone is abusing drugs. Each substance of abuse has its own set of signs, and to get in-depth on each substance would be an entire other article. For example, signs of alcohol abuse (slurred speech, alcohol odor, excessive cologne/gum) are far different that the signs of heroin abuse (nodding in and out, delayed reaction, marks on arms).

There are, however, several universal signs of substance abuse that we would like to share with you. Some of these signs may be more prominent than others, depending on which substance is being abused. Regardless, if your family member is exhibiting some of these signs, you can consider yourself one step closer to confirmation of substance abuse.

Some universal signs of substance abuse include:

  • Loss of control – The person is unable to moderate his or her alcohol/drug use.
  • Excessive absence – The person is not present where normally present, or excuses self often.
  • Risk-taking – The person is engaging in unusually risky or excessive behavior(s).
  • Shift in persona – The person’s character and/or physical appearance begins to change.
  • Lack of hygiene – The person’s level of self-care drops significantly.
  • Withdrawal symptoms – The person is excessively tired, edgy or depressed, or is nauseous/vomiting/exhibiting other signs of drug/alcohol withdrawal.

The bottom line is that the more informed you become on drug and alcohol abuse, the less likely you’ll be to miss something important. It’s hard to overlook signs of abuse when you know them all. This writer has a friend who told me once that back when he was in high school, his mother didn’t know the smell of marijuana and so he would smoke it and tell her it was motor oil. Education is important.


There are a few ways you could become victimized by this drug-abusing family member. Emotional abuse is most common. If this person becomes hostile, unpredictable, angry, or volatile in any way, you do not have to suffer the consequences. Obviously depending on the nature of your relationship to the person, make it clear that you will not tolerate that behavior. If you’re the parent, you know what to do. If you’re the sibling, talk to your parents. If you’re the child, seek the help of a trusted adult.

The same goes for other types of abuse, specifically sexual or physical. This is never acceptable and you should seek the help of police and/or a lawyer in this situation.

Another way to become the victim is by being stolen from. Many drug users who live at home will steal from family members to support a habit. If you notice this happening, end it. Otherwise not only are you now allowing it, you are actually enabling the person to continue the drug abuse. This brings us to point of advice number three…


The word ‘enabler,’ as defined by its second definition in the Google dictionary, means “a person who encourages or enables negative or self-destructive behavior in another.” Now, when it comes to it being a family member you should not enable, things get a little complicated.

You have to allow the person to suffer some of the consequences of abusing drugs or alcohol. You cannot cover for the person. Do not help him or her financially. Do not lie for his or her sake. This is much easier said than done when the person is someone you love. However, you must remember that addiction is a disease, and even though this person might not want to be acquiring drugs/alcohol by any means necessary, chances are he or she will. If they say it’s for lunch money, or for work, or for gas, and you have even a suspicion that it’s not, chances are it’s not (provided this person is indeed abusing drugs).

Another important thing to remember in the realm of not enabling is to maintain the family balance. Whatever your role is in the family, you are wise and mature enough to have gotten to this article, so use your best judgment in how to maintain that balance. If you have responsibility over this person, maintain it. If you are the one doing chores, keep them up. If and when this person breaks the balance, confront. Do not attack; confront.


Because you love this person and you are concerned, your empathy for this person is likely rather high. You likely go through spurts of depression-like moods just thinking about how things got this way. Stop doing that. Focus on your own well-being and your own choices. This is not selfish behavior. This is your life. Plus, how are you going to make the most informed decision for this person if you are not in top mental health yourself?

Make sure you’re getting sufficient sleep, eating properly, exercising regularly, not rescheduling doctor appointments several times, and all the while keeping a close on eye on your addicted loved one. This may seem overwhelming but we are rhythmic creatures and you’ll find a natural rhythm and balance.

If you find that you simply cannot maintain your normal healthy lifestyle while this is happening to your family member, seek professional help. There is zero shame and it 100% works. Whether it’s a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a doctor, a nurse, or (most preferably) a certified treatment center clinician, make sure you speak to a professional about this. There will be no bias, and no held punches when it comes to the truths you need to hear in this crucial time.


Our fifth piece of advice does not refer to getting professional help for your family member. For information on that, please see the first section of this article. Our fifth piece of advice is to know when it’s time to get help for yourself.

If and whenever you find yourself downtrodden and defeated by your family member’s drug use, and it’s more than you can take, please get some assistance. In this case, if you have a best friend or another family member you can speak with and get good advice from, go right ahead. However, it rings true that your best bet in this situation is professional help.

Now, if you feel as though any aspect of your life is in danger because of your family member’s drug/alcohol abuse, only professional help will due. If you are in physical danger, call 911. If you are in danger of being robbed, have been robbed, or if you are in danger of being retaliated against or have been, call your local police. There are several other instances where authorities should be notified, and hopefully you have the wisdom to know the difference. Do not suffer because of another’s decisions.

In Conclusion

For a very short while, this writer experienced a family member struggling with alcohol abuse. Since then and before then, he was an outstanding person all around and rarely indulged in heavy drinking or illicit drug use. However, after a personal tragedy unfolded in his life, the alcohol intake skyrocketed for a brief while.

During this period, he was closely watched by all of the family. Him being the oldest of us three, it felt a bit odd for the two of us, his siblings, to be ‘keeping watch’ on him. It paid off, though. The day after the two of us decided it was time to say something to our mother, he was put into rehab. Not 45 days later, looking at me intensely, he said (something very similar to) this:

“Bro, I literally almost drank myself to death in less than six months. I was a Marine. I traveled the world. I want to be a father. I have a great job. I almost lost all of that, and for what? A ******* drink? Never again. And not you either, little bro. Never you.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, don’t hesitate to call us at Arrow Passage Recovery. We’re available 24/7 to help.

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