If you love a victim of substance use disorder, experts say, it’s important to learn new tools and take care of yourself. Here’s how.


When drugs or drink come to dominate a person’s thoughts and actions, it’s not just the user who suffers—the whole family suffers. The addiction unravels the user’s life, and parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends are left to patch things together. It can become a downward spiral of frustration and exhaustion for everyone.

“People don’t have an understanding of what they’re supposed to do in that situation,” says Joe Deegan, a social worker in long-term recovery himself who serves as community liaison and program consultant for substance use
disorder programs at Thomas Health System in Charleston. Most of us just aren’t equipped to handle this in our families, Deegan says, and a lot of what we do instinctively can end up shaming the person and even enabling the addiction.

The good news is, while resources have been ramping up across the state to help sufferers of SUD, there are new resources for their families and friends, too. Here’s some guidance from the experts.

Shed the shame

Families often try to go it alone because they’re ashamed.

But as science has come to understand addiction better, it’s become clear that it’s not the product of “loose morals” or “a weak will”: Like diabetes or arthritis, addiction is a medical condition. “It’s not the family’s fault that people are addicted, either,” says Douglas M. Leech, founder of West Virginia Sober Living and Ascension Recovery Services in Morgantown
and in long-term recovery himself. “This disease is not ‘caused’; it’s a primary disease, meaning you can have great parents, a great childhood,
and you can still end up addicted.” This is why health professionals diagnose substance use disorder (SUD) rather than labelling people “addicts.” SUD ranges in severity and the level of treatment called for.

If you suspect your loved one suffers from a SUD, experts say a great first step is to let go of shame and recognize that it’s an illness—one that’s treatable, if the sufferer chooses to be helped.

Your loving financial support may be feeding the addiction

“If a family member is paying rent on an apartment and they know that their loved one, friend, nephew, daughter is actively using—heroin, opioids, meth, whatever it is—they don’t think they’re contributing to the problem,” says Leech. “‘I don’t want my son to be homeless.’ But paying for a cell phone, car insurance, a car, while it’s not giving them money, it allows that person to stay very, very sick. As long as they have a roof over their head, a car, and a cell phone, then any resources that they are able to get can go directly toward drugs, and they don’t get uncomfortable enough that they need to say, ‘I’m ready for change.’”

You can’t fix it—you can only choose how to respond to it

Part of family members’ suffering comes from an overwhelming sense of responsibility. “They have this feeling of, ‘I’ve got to do something to get them help,’” Deegan says.

The best thing a family member can do, he says, is learn to set healthy boundaries and speak respectfully with the loved one, encouraging him or her to make the choice to get help. Here, especially, support groups available across West Virginia, many of which work from a fresh understanding of family dynamics around addiction, can help.

Try a group

“Don’t necessarily try to handle this on your own,” says Deegan. Breaking the family silence and getting other perspectives is one of the single most important steps a person can take to change a painful family dynamic. A support group can assure you that you’re not alone, give you hope, and point you to new approaches and resources.

Many of us are familiar with Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, the 12-step groups for families dealing with substance use problems. These groups have long-time track records and are a helpful approach for many. They meet across the state.

An alternative approach that’s relatively new in West Virginia, called CRAFT, is based on groundbreaking research into what kinds of conversations succeed at encouraging people to make healthy choices. “They found that yelling at the loved one to get them to see that what is important to you should be important to them wasn’t all that effective,” says Sky Kershner, executive director of the Kanawha Pastoral Counseling
Center (KPCC)
in Charleston. “What was effective was paying attention to what’s important to the loved one who’s using drugs or alcohol. It’s kind of obvious, when you step back from it.”

The research led to a professional counseling approach that dramatically improved success at getting people into long-term recovery—from 2 out of 10 with the confrontational model to 6 or 7 out of 10 with the motivational model, Kershner says.

And the approach is simple enough in its basics that a version for non-professionals called Community Reinforcement and Family Training—CRAFT—and also, in West Virginia, Families Motivating Recovery—is empowering family members, restoring relationships, and transforming family environments.

Families Motivating Recovery support group meetings take place across the state. “The groups give people a safe place to talk about what’s going on,” Kershner says. Group members look honestly at how many of the conversations they’re having with their loved ones become arguments. “Usually, they’re not getting very good results.”

From there, the approach teaches four potent lessons:

  • No one size fits all when it comes to addiction and recovery: any SUD sufferer may falter along the road to recovery, and every family’s path is different.
  • The words we use matter: remaining respectful and interested.
  • The things we do matter: setting healthy boundaries.
  • It’s important to take care of yourself when you’re going through the most heartbreaking experience of your life.

Grounding family conversations in these concepts takes a little practice. “It’s kind of like learning a new language in a way, and it’s a language that you don’t hear spoken very often,” Kershner says. “It’s a learning curve.” But ultimately, he says, many find it can shift frustrating patterns.

Make the call

When the time is right for your loved one and your family, make the call. The HELP4WV and WV PEERS phone lines are both staffed by peer recovery
coaches who have been through addiction and found their own paths to recovery. They know what users and families go through and are trained to understand your story, offer support, and point you to the right resources
for your situation.

“About half of the people who call WV PEERS are someone who needs help themselves, and the other half are family,” says Leech, whose Ascension Recovery Services is one of the collaborators in WV PEERS. “We give instruction to the family on how to set the stage to make it easier for the person to make the choice to go into treatment.”

Even if you don’t feel a support group is right for you at this time, Deegan says, reach out to someone. “Go to your pastor, call 1-844-HELP4WV—take action.”

Kershner shares what he thinks of as the best thing he ever heard in a support group. “There was a guy who said, ‘The way we got into this mess was one person turning another person onto something that felt good in the
short-term but turned out to be devastating for their life. It was all of these one-on-one interactions.’ We’re going to get out of it the same way, he suggested: one-on-one.”


posted on May 13, 2020

images courtesy of Shutterstock

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Pam Kasey
Written by Pam Kasey
Pam Kasey has traveled, brewed, farmed, counseled, and renovated, but most loves to write. She has degrees in economics from the University of Chicago and in journalism from West Virginia University. She loves celebrating Morgantown and West Virginia as executive editor at New South Media.