Taking care of a loved one with an addiction can burn you out. This is normal. The main thing is to take care of yourself first, then you can help your loved one. And if you need to walk away from the situation because it’s just too much—that is OK too.
It’s normal to have caregiver burnout when your loved one has an addiction. Addiction is complicated and difficult to treat. It’s a serious, lifelong illness of the body and mind where the brain becomes compromised over time. Living with someone with an addiction can make you on edge or depressed. And you deserve to give yourself a break. Your feelings are valid and real. It’s OK to grieve and feel lost when someone you love has an addiction.
Relationships change over time.
Addiction makes relationships hard. When someone has an addiction, they are in one crisis after another until they get into recovery. They realize that the best way for them to get attention is to be sick. You must allow them to get into recovery and heal. Then you can have a relationship.
At the beginning of their recovery process you might give a lot of your time, attention, and money to support them. Recovery takes a long time, especially if people have been addicted for a long time. Relapse is a part of recovery that makes it hard because it feels like the person is falling into the same traps and has to “start over.” All together this is going to increase your frustration and may lower your sense of hope for your loved one.
Put yourself first and identify your boundaries
Whether or how you choose to be there for your loved one depends on you. There are some relationships that are worth it, and some relationships that are not. You must determine what is best for you. It’s always OK and best to put yourself first. Doing that doesn’t make you selfish. And it makes having any relationship with your loved one healthier, especially in the long run.
You are not responsible for your loved one’s health or happiness. It’s like trying to carry a 200-pound boulder. You cannot carry it by yourself. There are things you can carry—or do for your loved one if you want to.
But DO NOT do something for your loved one if what you feel in your heart is that you don’t want to do it— especially if it means putting yourself in emotional, financial, or physical harm. Doing something we don’t want to do will lead to more anger and resentment. If you don’t want to do something for any reason, this is where a boundary can be set.
Setting boundaries and giving support
Allowing people to experience their own pain is a part of recovery. If you do too much for them then you become an enabler and may be making things worse.  Saying no is the best thing you can do for yourself and for them. It’s OK to step away because the risk of burnout, anger, and resentment will hurt the relationship in the long term. They may get mad at you and may stop talking to you, but this is normal.
First set your boundaries. “If you do not blank, I will no longer be able to make myself available to you for blank.” You are not telling them what to do. You are telling them: here are the guidelines. For example, “If you do not stop calling me at night while you are drunk. And saying you want to die. I will not be able to take your calls.” They may not remember last night’s conversation, so, keep repeating it until they get it. They may say you are abandoning them, but you are not. You just cannot take their behavior. And you must follow through and do what you said you would do. (Do not take the call.) It will be hard at first, but part of their recovery is learning to be accountable.
Talk to someone
If you do get burned out, you need help. Whenever we’re supporting someone through a serious illness, it’s important to have someone to talk to. This includes friends, family, and peers. At times one person can help you deal with it. Other times it may require help from several people.
A good place to find someone to talk to is in Al Anon meetings. If you’re looking for more one-on one, intimate settings, or to process through significant pain (past trauma or complicated family history), you can talk to a therapist. Or an addictionologist—a doctor who is certified in addiction/ substance use disorder medicine and treatment.
- Hendriksen, E. (2016, September 28). Is Depression Contagious? Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-depression-contagious/#:~:text=Depression%20is%20contagious%2C%20but%20it%27s,history%2C%20stress%2C%20and%20more
- Juergens, J. (2023, May 18). 7 Signs Of An Enabler. Addiction Center. https://www.addictioncenter.com/treatment/stage-intervention/what-is-an-enabler/