Addiction: A Guide for Friends and Family (6)

Written by David Partington

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

Creating a family environment in which real change can take place in the life of a drug abuser or alcoholic is never easy, but it is possible. 

Amidst all the problems, aggravation, pressure and stress, one can take steps which will build a resource of real love and hope for the future. I say with confidence that change is possible, because I've lived and worked, with my own family, in such an environment for many years at Yeldall Manor. It was here that we have tried and tested principles in a ‘community’ of 25 addicts and alcoholics who wanted to sort their lives out. These principles are not perfect, but they have brought about the changes which you are longing to see in the life of the person in your family with an addiction problem.

Love and acceptance

One of the most amazing things that people comment on about Yeldall Manor is the relative depth of peace that they sense about the place, in the lives of both residents and staff. Some of it must be down to what they thought a rehabilitation centre is like; they come expecting to find a facility full of ‘junkies’ and ‘alcoholics’ all either shaking from withdrawal or shuffling around almost brain dead. Instead they find a group of relatively happy staff and residents, seeking to love and accept one another - at least most of the time!  The confirmation that love and acceptance does actually work is founded on the evidence of many, many changed lives.

Tough love

Tough love is selfless, unconditional love, which is prepared to say ‘No.’  It’s love which goes on caring for people as well as taking the pain of their hurt and anguish. It is necessary at Yeldall Manor, and in your home, because it is not the physical addiction which is the hardest thing for them to face but: 

·         Dismantling the psychological addiction, changing the mindsets, the attitudes that have been built up over the years in their lives.

·         Choosing to face, without drugs, the full impact of painful feelings and emotions that have been cushioned by drugs, sometimes for over twenty years!

·         Having to face, without the drugs or alcohol, the hurt and pain they have caused to other people, and especially to those closest to them. 

 I, and every other Yeldall staff member, will readily confirm that unconditional, selfless love is not easily come by. I had not been at Yeldall more than about three months before I'd had enough - before I found that any love I had arrived with was burnt up. I remember telling God, ‘I can't love these men any more, they've taken what I've given them and it hasn't brought the results I expected. There's no way I can do this job anymore.’

The response was a surprise, and it went something like this. ‘David, I've been trying to tell you for a long time that I want you to be a channel of my love, which is an unlimited, recreating love, for both you and the residents.’ I can't pretend I always responded rightly after that; there are too many residents and staff who will tell you differently! All I know is that it gradually got easier, because I wasn't dependent upon my own love but rather on the bottomless reservoirs of God's love.


Someone with a drug or alcohol problem has spent many years building a false foundation, creating in their minds the perfect person they think will impress other people. They also act in a way which they think will cause you and me to treat them in turn in a special way which makes them feel worthy. In order to redress these major problems they need genuine acceptance, so that, over the months, they can begin to face up to who they really are, and allow others to know them as they really are.  How do we accept them? By looking behind the image, the anger, the bitterness, the rebellion, and looking for the very special person they were created to be.

Facing up to reality

It's easy for me to talk about tough love and acceptance; I haven't discovered someone in my own family is addicted in the way that you may have.  I can only suggest that you take some time, albeit through gritted teeth, to try and get yourself into the frame of mind where you can begin to love and accept them for their own sake, rather than demanding changes for your sake. Wanting immediate results is understandable, but not very realistic because it only reinforces differences between you and them. There are practical steps to take, but before we look at them, can I suggest you find someone to help you face up to the issues involved?  Hopefully it will be your partner, but if you don't have one, or they can't get beyond the raw emotions stage, then look for someone else to help you.

One final thing before we look at a list of practicalities: get everyone else in the immediate family together and face the situation for what it is, honestly and openly. It's also important to have regular meetings after that, to talk through what is happening and who is saying what. I've found that daily staff meetings at Yeldall Manor make a big difference in many areas, but especially in preventing the residents from manipulating us by playing one staff member off against another. Those meetings are not gossip shops - they are far too serious, because people’s lives depend on them - but they are an opportunity to share how a resident is progressing. (Anything really confidential is only shared with the resident's regular counsellor.) Regular meetings also help if there is something that is going wrong, especially where it involves more than one member of the family, because you can then face the issue together.

Practical steps – love in action

Facing the facts. Assuming that the evidence you have got really does confirm that your family member is abusing drugs or alcohol, then prepare yourself and the circumstances to talk through with them what you have learnt: 

·         Prepare the time and place very carefully. Don't do it just before they are going out, because on top of the frustration of your confrontation, they will get wound up by the fact that you are preventing them from meeting friends. Pick a time when you all have space, even if it means waiting a while. Be prepared to take time off work if necessary.

·         Be realistic; accept that your approach will be seen as confrontation, so don't make it worse by behaving angrily or arrogantly. You might be wrong, but if you are right, remember they have been preparing for this moment longer than you have.  They have probably been rehearsing their response to your accusation and your indignation, maybe for months! They have also got all their answers and excuses ready, and will almost certainly deny the truth.

·         Remember that if they are using, then because you now know for certain, they will believe that their world is about to fall apart. They will feel you are threatening their whole security, friends, lifestyle and standards. Maybe more vital than that, they will believe that they may be forced to stop abusing the drugs or alcohol that they now depend upon for stability to cope with everyday life.

 What steps you take from this point is dependent upon whether they acknowledge that they have a problem or not.

If they deny they are using/abusing, you have little option but to take their denial at face value. Don't beat about the bush. Explain (preferably calmly) the evidence, and ask them to explain why that evidence is invalid. If they still deny abusing drugs, all you can do is to tell them that you will seek to carry on as if nothing has happened. Ask them to understand however that you would not have gone through the pain of confronting them if you had not thought about it long and hard. Reinforce the fact that you love them (and go on doing it practically), but that you reserve the right to question their behaviour in future. Keep your guard up whilst still seeking to love them and respect them.

If they acknowledge they are abusing drugs or alcohol, then try to remain calm and establish whether or not they want to do something about stopping. Once they have told you their answer, try not to respond immediately, so you can give yourself time to think. Tell them you will arrange to meet them again so you can talk through what happens in the future. However, if it’s clear that they want help, then start looking at what options are available, and who they can get advice from.

If they don't want to stop abusing drugs or alcohol, you will need to take time to think through the following issues: 

·         What drug or alcohol use, if any, is acceptable in your home?

·         Is it still appropriate for them to see all their friends?

·         Should they continue to receive the same level of allowance?

·         Should they still be allowed to use the family vehicle?

·         What ‘free time’ should they be allowed outside the home?

·         Should they continue to live at home? If you don't believe it's appropriate for them to leave immediately, then they should know that you retain this option in future. Such an option will be dependent on their willingness to respect the rest of the family.

 It is difficult to be specific in any of these areas, and it may be that, having made one decision, circumstances result in you being more or less rigid subsequently. Once again taking your time is important, in order to build relationships and seek advice.

If they do want to give up abusing, it is important to reach agreement as to the best ways of helping them to stop using drugs or alcohol. Only time will tell if they are really serious about giving up. One very rough guide as to their seriousness is the way they respond to restrictions; but remember to apply those restrictions with the right attitude. Before going too far down the road take some practical steps: 

·           Talk with the ‘experts’, e.g. doctors, drug agencies.

·           Try really hard to listen before you react.

·           Don't discuss issues if they are ‘stoned’ or drunk.

·           Don't discuss or argue if they patently don't want to listen. All this does is reinforce in their minds that it's you that is being unreasonable, you that does not know the ‘real’ story, you that needs to change.                                   

·           Keep seeking the truth by establishing the facts rather than responding to emotion.            

·           Plan when you will meet with them, regularly, and ensure that you stick to it. If you really have to change the meeting time, then do it very rarely and only with their agreement. 

·           Invest your time in them - how else do they know how important they are to you? 

·           It may be helpful or appropriate to involve someone else as a mediator - someone you can both trust. This will go a long way to defusing potentially difficult situations.

·           Don't meet to discuss issues for too long; their attention span is, as with everyone with an addiction problem, very short. 

·            Keep asking ‘Why?’ but nicely! i.e. ‘David why did you take drugs?’ ’Well because they felt good.’ ‘In what way did they feel good?’’They made me feel comfortable’. ‘Why did you feel the need of comfort from them?’

·           Constantly reinforce the fact that, whilst you love them, you don't love their behaviour or attitudes.

·           Accept responsibility for your actions.

·           Be prepared to say sorry.

·           Tell them you will not do ANYTHING which reinforces their drug taking.

·           Keep your word. If they can't trust you, who can they trust, and why should they change?

·           Stand by them in any action they have to take e.g. court appearances.  But don't protect them from the consequences of their actions.

·           Don't be afraid of physical contact, even if they shrug off a hand on their arm or shoulder.

·           Keep on checking on whose insecurities you are responding to - yours or theirs?

·           Remember they are just as afraid of failure as you are!

·           Check to ensure that they think the change agreed is reasonable, e.g. is it really reasonable for them to give up smoking tobacco in the middle of studying for major exams?

·           Tell them how well they have done when they do make positive changes. Play to their strengths.

·           Be very careful how much money you trust them with. You can always buy them what they need.

·           Finally don't agree to unreasonable demands; keep your options open, eg if they ask ‘Please don't tell Gran and Grandpa, will you?’. Think through your response carefully: ‘No I can't honestly agree not to tell them immediately, but I am prepared to keep it from them for the moment. You need to remember that they need protecting as much as you do’.

 And remember the rest of the family. Other folk in the family need the reassurance that they are loved as you give a major investment of your time to the person with the problem. Try to work out some special times for them. Tell them you love them, and show it!

Remember you can't do the recovery for them

Another hard lesson we learn at Yeldall Manor is that we can't change an addict. They have to make the choice themselves that they want to be free, and until they do, nothing much happens. Worst of all you may have to let them fall even further into the ‘mire.’ If you do try to stop them, then I am afraid it will take longer for them to come face to face with reality, with the truth about themselves. Leaving them to fall will cause you great anguish and distress, but it will result in them coming into freedom sooner.

I recognize that all this is easy for me to say, when it's a member of your family I am talking about. All I can do is reinforce what I have learned - that there never has been an addict or alcoholic who wanted to be an addict or alcoholic. They long for freedom more than you will ever know; but where they are, and the freedom they cry out for on the inside, are miles apart. As you love them and give them the dignity of treating them as responsible individuals, they will slowly and falteringly take the steps which lead to that real freedom.

Family life and addiction

Finding real answers for addicts and alcoholics has been a large part of my life and that of many, many caring people I have worked with.  In seeking to find those answers we have often come face to face with the pain in our own lives. But in choosing to face that pain for what it really is, we found the joy and privilege of finding real answers for other people, as well as ourselves.

Helping people with a life-dominating problem is demanding but fulfilling work; and one of the most exciting things about working with addicts and alcoholics is learning to see the potential behind their lives. It takes time, because their initial attitude is often one of unrestrained negativity; it shows itself in arrogance, rebellion, despair, pain, bitterness and pure despair.  As time goes by, however, you begin to understand what's behind the negativity. The root problems are not drugs or the attitudes that manifest themselves in words and actions. All this is to cover up the emptiness inside, the feelings of insecurity, inferiority and insignificance.  Behind the anger, rebellion, and bitterness, there is a very, very special individual, someone who is a highly intelligent, sensitive, and longing to be loved and accepted.  There is also a unique individual with the potential to contribute directly and positively to you, to your family and to society in general.

Helping them find freedom to be that unique individual is not easy. Change like this can only take place in an environment where they are both loved and also helped to face up to their lives as they really are - the good, bad and the ugly! We have created an environment like that at Yeldall Manor, and whilst it's not perfect it does enable addicts and alcoholics to find freedom in the fulfilment of serving others.

Yeldall Manor is not an easy place to live as a resident because it demands a lot of sacrifice, as well as the courage to face up to themselves as they really are, instead of the image they have hidden behind for years. Many find that process much easier through coming into the forgiving and transforming power of God's love in Jesus; but however they do it it's critically important that they find: 

·         Security - for their insecurity they need to find a sense of belonging, a sense of being loved and unconditionally accepted.

·         Significance - for their insignificance they need to begin to enjoy a sense of purpose, meaning, adequacy and a sense of being able to contribute.

·         Self-worth - for their inferiority they need to find a sense of being valued for who they really are.

 Having these needs met is a painful experience for residents, because it reinforces the fact that these needs could or should have been met in their families. In fact if you spend time talking with them about family life, some of the pain they express can make you weep. Not too long ago I deliberately gave some of the residents the opportunity to describe their most vivid recollection of family life? Among their responses appeared the following: 

·         ‘There wasn't really any structure to my family life’

·         ‘Everyone did their own thing, and I wasn't involved with what others were doing’

·         ‘I had no relationships in my family life that gave me security and love’.

·         ‘When my adopted farther came home I was discarded by my mother for fear my father would be jealous’.

·         ‘I was constantly told how much of an unwanted accident I was, about how useless, ugly and stupid I was and how I would never amount to anything.’

 These memories are painful enough, but no match for the true story of the resident who come home from school when he was eight years old to be told, after hours of waiting outside an empty house, that the rest of the family had moved house! He was left behind deliberately, and yet was supposed to grow into a mature, stable individual in a variety of children's homes or with or a chain of foster parents! 

Over the years I was concerned that maybe what I was hearing from the mouths of our residents was exceptional. Yet the more I talked with other addicts, the clearer it became that the lack of a secure and loving family life was the major problem in addiction. This was reinforced recently when I came across one particular piece of research among a group of 15-16 year old adolescents, who were asked to report on their perception of their own family relationships. The study concluded that drug users were more likely than non-users to perceive their families as distant and less involved.  Fathers are more likely perceived to be ineffective, and less significant than mothers. Drug users reported more parental separation, divorce, re-marriage and bereavement, that they had difficulty in communicating with both parents and they perceived them as tending to be mistrusting, verbally punitive and critical.1 Evidence like this is very worrying in the context of what is happening in terms of the breakdown of so many families, especially when we read that Britain has attained the highest divorce rate in Europe. It also has more than double the number of illegitimate births of any other European country except one. ‘One in seven families in Britain has one parent, compared with Europe's average of 1 in 10.’2 Commenting on the above survey Professor Richard Whitfield stated the chillingly obvious: ‘The indicators for children are appalling in terms of hidden pain and disillusionment’. How many more addicts will there be in the future when we match these facts up with the growing availability of drugs?

All these problems are compounded by the increasing way in which families are living totally separate lives whilst being under the same roof. Convenience foods, microwaves, and the fact that well over half of our households have two or more televisions increasingly means that there is less and less reason for families to relate to one another. This was graphically illustrated by a company in the USA which is being hugely successful in selling cards designed to be left on the breakfast table; they read ‘Have a nice day, son!’

The implications of living such separate lives where children are not fully loved and cherished can be seen in a story from the thirteenth century. King Frederick II wanted to find out what kind of speech children would have if no one spoke to them in their early days. ‘So he bade foster mothers and nurses to suckle the children, to bathe them and wash them, but no way to prattle with them or to speak to them, for he wanted to learn whether they would speak the Hebrew language, which was the oldest, or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perhaps the language of their parents, of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, because the children all died. For they could not live without the petting and the joyful faces and loving words of their foster mothers.’ Further confirmation of the need for real love is found in this quote from Peter Farb:’In 1915 a doctor at the John Hopkins Hospital noted that an astounding 90% of the infants admitted to orphanages and foundling homes in Baltimore, Maryland, died within a year - even though they received adequate care. And about three decades ago, a psychoanalytic researcher concluded that an absence of maternal care, stimulation, and love lead to physical and emotional retardation and also to a high mortality rate. In fact 34 of the 91 foundling-home infants that he studied in the eastern United States and Canada died in spite of good food and meticulous medical care.’3 Each and every child needs to be loved and cherished; each and every person needs to grow up in an environment of intimacy, of deep and close communion - the security to sit together and talk quietly and comfortably about personal struggles, dreams and aspirations. Intimacy has been devalued in our society and needs to be regained to replace what Josh McDowell sees as the counterfeit. ‘We were willing to settle for something cheap and empty, albeit very intimate in one way, rather than building long term relationships that were intimate at several levels; emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social.’4 Many of us are the product of homes devastated emotionally by two World Wars; others are part of families which suffered from the 60s 'me' culture. But whatever our background we can choose to be different, so that we don't reinforce the insecurity, insignificance and inferiority of another generation.

If all this leaves you depressed at how much needs to be put right in your own family, I can understand that! I have had to come face to face with the truth that I was to blame for personally failing to love and cherish my sons adequately in their early years.  Yet choosing the discomfort of accepting my own failure and inadequacy was incredibly vital, not only in terms of putting things right for me but especially for them. The result is two very mature sons who I am immensely proud of, alongside another very special late arrival. You can change, and in changing, you can dramatically alter the environment in which the addict or alcoholic in your family can begin to find freedom.  Where you find that love and acceptance you personally need, so that you can provide it for others, is open to debate! All I know is that I found it in the Father Heart of God for me - a holy, passionate love which was freely available in Jesus. Coming to the end of my own resources released me into His love, life and power.

If you have an addict or alcoholic in the family it may be that, as you see them, the chances of putting things right verges on the miraculous. But making the choices to be different, to choose the pain and discomfort of meeting other people's needs rather than our own, is infinitely better than wallowing in mediocrity or second best. Choosing to be a channel of new life, love, hope and intimacy doesn't wipe out past mistakes or deny the hurt we have caused others, but it does offer a powerful and dramatic resource which is so desperately needed by our family. The next two sections look at the practicalities for real change to take place.


Perceived Family Relationship In Drug Abusing Adolescents by Ann Stoker and Harith Swadi.

2 Family Policies Study Centre.

Human Kind.

Teens Speak Out.

David Partington 

This feature is written by David Partington. David is general secretary of ISAAC, the International Substance Abuse and Addiction Coalition,  

 © David Partington 2011.