Helping a Chronic Substance Abuser Face Reality

Helping a Chronic Substance Abuser Face Reality

If someone you love is chemically dependent, then the rules of the household are probably all shot to hell. A good way to improve the situation is to redefine your relationship on paper in the form of an agreement. A good “boundaries agreement” will benefit you as much as them. It takes the responsibility for recovery off your shoulders and puts it all on theirs, where it belongs. That way, if they don’t stay sober, they will be punishing themselves.

Those of us who are chemically dependent do not like reality. However, our freedom to avoid reality depends on your unwillingness to enforce the rules. Of course, we are very skilled at manipulating you into being this way. Our bag of tricks includes fits of rage, blaming, guilting, lying, withdrawing and sarcasm. Over time, we wear you down so the rules apply to everyone but us. You become so intimidated that you will do anything to avoid upsetting us. On the rare occasion we do stick to our word – however insignificant the incident, we make you feel like we are doing you the biggest favor in the world. Sound familiar?

Boundaries are like rules, but they are from your perspective, not the perspective of the chemically dependent person. Is there a difference? Yes… a big one. You cannot force the addict to stick to your rules. That is their decision. However, you can specify where their behavior crosses the boundary marking where your responsibilities begin. For example, you cannot control whether someone uses illegal drugs away from the home. However, using those drugs on your property puts you at risk. A boundaries agreement protects you from becoming responsible for their problems.

Many families are unsuccessful at implementing rules. Typically they run into one of two difficulties. Either they issue rules without any consequences, or, the consequences are never enforced. Unlike the past, the new agreement will have clear consequences for unacceptable behavior. Equally important, it will be made clear that the consequences are to be enforced swiftly and without exception. Anything less will send the abuser mixed messages, causing you to lose all credibility while giving them more reasons to use.

Implementing boundaries is an act of love. Ideally a boundaries agreement is created with input from all parties, because when everyone has a say in what affects them, they are more likely to support it. It should be written as a contract, read and signed by all and posted on the refrigerator. In a co-parenting situation, it should be posted on both refrigerators. The first boundary should always be that they stay “clean and sober”. There is no “grace period”. Beginning with the very first time a boundary is violated, you need only point to the agreement. Consequences become the automatic result of unacceptable behavior. You can tell the abuser that you sympathize with their situation. You can tell the abuser that you love them and wish it hadn’t come to this. You can tell the abuser that it just plain sucks. But, you cannot change the consequences they have brought on by their actions.

Chronic substance abusers desperately need structure. So, you aren’t doing us any favors by not enforcing boundaries. You are simply “enabling” us to avoid reality, walk all over you and kill ourselves with chemicals. Think about that the next time you are considering whether to let us get away with breaking the rules. We might not appreciate your efforts at this moment, but we will thank you later, I promise. Get more information about helping a chronic substance abuser to face reality. Order the At Home Recovery Handbook from

KEITH ANGELIN, MBA, CADC-II, CNDAI is the director of Counseling, Intervention & Assessment Services. He is a Masters level, Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CADC-II), and a Certified National Drug and Alcohol Interventionist (CNDAI). Prior to entering the field of substance abuse counseling, he spent two-decades as a marketing executive in the health and nutrition industry where he worked with professional athletes and celebrities including Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Dallas Cowboys. A ten year battle with drugs and alcohol included three overdoses. His recovery compelled him to share the miracle with others. Learn more at

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