Are you worried about someone else's drug problem?
At least 1 in 5 people are affected by the behaviour of someone they know who has a problem with alcohol, tobacco, or others drugs. This fact sheet will help you determine if you are one of those people, and if so, what you can do about it.
Last updated: 06 May 2003
It's your problem if you have to live with it
Depedence on alcohol or other drugs is a common feature of modern life.
Much of the media attention given to drug use concentrates on illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine, cannabis, and ecstasy. But many people are regularly using legal drugs in ways which can and do cause harm - to themselves and to others. Around 1 in 20 people in our community has a serious problem related to the use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.
And for every person with a problem, there are at least four others (spouse, parents, children, or friends) who can be affected by their behaviour, adding up to 1 in 5 people in Australia.
It's difficult to accept, but often we make someone else's problem our own. This can be a result of living life to fix someone else's drug problem, rather than working out which are their problems and which are our own.
We tell ourselves all sorts of things to avoid starting a sometimes painful process of concentrating on our own problems rather than someone else's.
In the same way as the person dependent on alcohol or another drug will need to face their behaviour if they want to get off the drug they're using, in the end, you have to face what is happening to you.
But it is possible for you to improve your life, whether or not they decide to change their behaviour.
How to tell the difference between your problems and theirs
Sometimes it's hard to decide whose problems are worse. The following checklist may help you tell the difference between your problems and theirs:
If you answered 'yes' to three or more of these questions, then you have problems which are affecting your life. You may benefit from talking to someone who can help you to understand the way you're feeling.
When you close your eyes, does it go away?
"For years I've been putting dried-out meals on the table for him hours after everyone has eaten...I'd forgotten that not everyone lives this way."
Sometimes it's hard to admit that life is not as good as it might be. You can put up with a problem for so long that you forget things were ever any different, or that they could be better.
There are lots of good reasons why. Perhaps there are still enough good times left for you to believe that the situation isn't that bad, that you're overreacting.
You may blame overwork, or think that it's due to other changes in your life, or that you're being paranoid.
Sometimes we distance ourselves from our problems by looking at our life as if it were a TV soap opera. Turning people and situations into a story may help you to talk about them, but it also keeps the illusion that it's someone else's bad dream.
Sometimes we choose to deal with a problem by finding someone or something to blame for it. This doesn't help to resolve the problem and usually ends up distracting us from honestly facing the situation.
All of these tactics have two things in common. They help us to protect ourselves from life's unpleasant encounters - including our own feelings.
And, unfortunately, they don't help us to solve our problems.
These defense mechanisms, as they're called, often shut out hurtful truths by denying that they hurt or that they are true.
"...he had hepatitis some years ago and my first reaction was 'dirty needles' and then I sort of felt shame that I would think such a thing. And I dismissed it."
Sometimes, to protect ourselves from painful reality, we deny our own feelings or needs. This is what is meant by the word 'denial.' In the short term, denying problems or feelings may make you feel better, but in the long term the underlying problems won't be solved unless they are faced honestly.
Whose fault is it anyway?
"She seemed alright for the first couple of years we were married, then the drinking got out of control. I've always wondered whether she'd have ended up like this if she had married someone else."
Being involved in an unhappy situation can trigger a whole range of emotions ranging from guilt through to confusion and anger.
You can end up, in quick succession, blaming yourself or someone else, feeling ashamed, hurt, frustrated and angry, as you try to come to terms with something that makes no sense and seems totally unfair.
These changes in mood alternate with all our other defence mechanisms as we rush in every direction in search of a safe place to hide from pain, fear, or feeling inadequate - whatever it is that we're trying to avoid.
Quite often there are nagging feelings lurking somewhere near the surface:
'Did I cause this to happen?' 'I should fix this.'
Remember, you can't cause someone else's drug problem, but you can contribute to the situation continuing or getting worse by the way you act.
Once you face your situation for what it is, the real question becomes: what can you do about it?
When you are trying to cope with living with someone who uses alcohol or other drugs, many of your own attitudes will come into play and affect they way you act. These could range from withdrawing from the person to providing what may seem like unlimited support, but which is really encouraging the behaviour to continue.
Some things are meant to be
Often initial emotions are covered by dispair and apathy and life becomes focused on the behaviour of the person using alcohol or drugs.
"We've always been unlucky. His drinking problem is just more of the same, really."
When people stop blaming each other, bad luck or fate takes the rap instead. Bad luck is nobody's fault, but it feels easier to be a victim of circumstances beyond your control than to take responsibility for your own life.
Feeling like a victim is a decision you make to give up control of your destiny. It can lead to feelings of despair, depression and being powerless to change anything.
So it's not just the person who uses alcohol or drugs who has a problem.
Can it ever make sense?
If you want to break out of the vicious cycle you're in, it helps to understand the part that families and friends play in keeping it all going.
"We never talked to mum about dad's drinking. I guess we thought we would upset her."
We all learn at a very young age how to avoid the truth, to spare other people's and our own feelings. What we learn in our families as children - how to cope with pain or anger - is carried on into our adult lives and is part of what we bring into our relationships.
If we haven't learnt how to express our true feelings, but instead have learned to avoid them, chances are we might end up in a relationship with someone whose needs seem more important than ours. We start looking after their problems - our own become irrelevant.
Children also learn from their families how drugs can be used as problem solvers - aspirin for headaches, cigarettes and alcohol to relax.
However, just as aspirins and alcohol mask symptoms of feeling uncomfortable, rather than solve problems, it takes only one more step to learn that drug usage can help avoid problems altogether.
Alcohol and drugs then become things we use to help us cope with the unhappy parts of everyday life.
In what becomes a vicious cycle, the drugs used to help cope begin to create a whole new range of physical, emotional and economic problems of their own.
The person using alcohol or drugs has simply wallpapered over one set of problems by creating another.
What happens next is that the people around the person who uses drugs adjust to this change. They, too, begin to focus on the problems caused by drugs or alcohol rather than the problems which led to their use in the first place.
After all, being involved in someone else's problem helps you to avoid your own.
The more you worry...the less they care
"A lot of partners as well as parents, if you ask them how things are going, nine times out of ten they'll say everything is wonderful. The family's sense of denial is sometimes even stronger than the addict's."
It may seem hard to believe, but it is quite often the very people who take on someone else's drug and alcohol problem who unintentionally encourage the very behaviour that they want to change.
How? It's part of the way families work.
In a family, each person normally plays a role according to the expectations of other family members.
When the family is running smoothly, individual members also tend to function well. Everyone is aware of where they fit and what is expected of them and others.
When this organisation is disrupted, for instance by one person taking up heavy drinking, everyone else feels the effects and a crisis is born.
Usually, the family attempts to continue as normal until it is obvious that old patterns no longer work.
At this point, family organisation slumps, tension increases and relationships become strained.
Gradually an adjustment occurs in which people change roles and shift their place in the family group.
This can make things seem more stable, but what this reorganisation usually means is that everyone in the family has changed their role and behaviour. The group revolves around the central theme of the alcohol or drug problem.
To keep everything stable, members of the family unconsciously do things which keep them stuck in this unsatisfactory situation.
The following checklist lists some of the ways in which families reinforce destructive attitudes and behaviour:
How many dependent people are in this family?
"I realised that I'd put on eight kilograms since the trouble started. I suddenly thought 'My God, never mind what's happening to him, what's happening to me?'"
Misusing alcohol or other drugs is only one expression of dependency.
The words workaholic, fitness addict or food junkie describe the fairly accurate idea that people can use many things, not only drugs, to distract themselves from dealing with the problems in their lives.
Including someone else's problems.
The person who uses alcohol or other drugs can provided many people with a common excuse for avoiding personal issues.
With all the best intentions in the world, rather than helping the drug user, such avoidance damages your own well-being at the same time as you reinforce and encourage their behaviour.
That doesn't mean that you're not genuinely concerned about them, any more than their using drugs means they don't care about you. It may mean, however, that you are letting your concern for them override your concern for yourself. You need care too.
Is it time to give up again?
"My husband's so drunk most of the time he can barely stand up, and you are telling me that I'm the one with the problems?"
That's not what we mean.
Facing your own problems doesn't mean that you shouldn't be concerned about someone else's drug or alcohol problem.
What it does mean is that their actions may be putting you at risk - financially, physically, or emotionally - and that your actions are contributing to this situation.
If you have a caring relationship with an alcohol or drug dependent person, then you may quite rightly feel that you can't let them down, that somehow you have to help.
The feeling of powerlessness people experience over someone else's alcohol or drug problem is appropriate. You are powerless over other people's lives. It's only when you accept that and begin to assert power in your own life that real improvement can occur for both of you.
The important thing to remember is that you can't help anyone if you can't help yourself and that being supportive doesn't necessarily mean being 'nice' all the time, especially at the cost of your own feelings.
Don't offer a life raft...get on it
"I used to wake up every morning and think 'What am I going to do about his drinking?' Everything's been so much better since the day I woke up and finally said 'What am I going to do about MY life?'"
Hope, support, information, common sense, courage, responsibility, calmness, a sense of humour and patience are the basic ingredients you will need to break out of the situation.
The traps of reinforcing and encouraging their behaviour - covering up, pleading, trying harder, bargaining and threatening without consequence - don't do anyone any good. We need to take responsibility for our own well being and allow others to do the same, even if it's not so easy to do.
This means letting go. Letting go isn't easy. But there are things you can do to help you through this difficult time:
So what can I do?
In this situation what you don't know can hurt you. This fact sheet merely scratches the surface about what you need to know or do. You will find that making sense of a difficult situation brings an enormous sense of relief.
Learning to understand the causes of the problems in your life, and the difference between solutions and dead ends, will help you to make clear and sensible decisions.
The other qualities referred to - common sense, courage, responsibility and patience - are qualities you probably already have and they will come back, along with confidence, as the changes you've made start to take effect.
If you don't feel comfortable that you possess some of these qualities, you can find help to develop them. You will have to do most of the hard work, and do it for yourself. But you don't have to do it by yourself.
There are many things you can do to help at this time:
You might also want to try individual counselling.
Most problems don't emerge overnight so don't expect them to disappear straight away. A useful long-term solution is one where you learn, not only how to deal with a particular situation, but how to cope better with any future situation.
It's only by examining how you currently face or hide from problems that you can change lifetime habits of avoidance into strategies for change.
For more information and help
For Family Drug Support in Australia, phone the Family Drug Support 24 hour hotline on 1300 368 186.
Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) is a 24 hour confidential telephone counselling service. Phone: 9361 8000 or Toll free: 1800 422 599
|Further information - Area Health Service Drug and Alcohol central intake telephone numbers|
|These centralised numbers are the first point of contact for people seeking assistance for drug and alcohol problems. Callers may be assessed by telephone and referred to relevant services within the Area.
Centralised intake lines operate Monday to Friday during business hours.
|Metropolitan Areas||Location||Number||Rural Areas||Location||Number|
|Northern Sydney/Central Coast||North Sydney||1300 889 788||Greater Southern||Greater Murray||1800 800 944|
|Central Coast||4394 4880||02 9425 3923|
|South Eastern Sydney/Illawarra||South East Sydney||02 9113 4444||Southern||1800 809 423|
|Illawarra||1300 652 226||Greater Western||Far West||1800 665 066|
|Sydney South West||South West Sydney||02 9616 8586||08 8080 1556|
|Central Sydney||02 9515 5311||Macquarie||1800 092 881|
|Sydney West||Wentworth||02 4734 1333||02 6841 2360|
|Western Sydney||02 9840 3355||Mid Western||1300 887 000|
|Hunter/New England||Hunter||02 4923 2060|
|New England||1300 660 059|
|North Coast||Area Health Service||1300 662 263|
|Mid North Coast||02 6588 2882|
|Northern Rivers||02 6620 7612|