Dear Miriam

This is a bit of a tricky one and I don’t want to give away too many personal details for fear of identification. A very good friend of mine is going through a hard time right now due to an addiction issue in her family (with her grown-up son in his early 20s).

She is doing her best to support him, but I can see that it is taking an enormous toll on her. You can literally see the worry etched on her face.

I want to support her, but I feel that there is so little that I can do, as I have no experience of dealing with an addiction in the family. I don’t want to over step the mark either, as I realise it is a private family matter.

Is there anything you would suggest?

Concerned friend, Cork

Dear Concerned friend,

Thank you very much for getting in touch. I think that when addiction is discussed, often times we only focus on the impact on the person who has the addiction, rather than on the wider family. As you rightly identify, it can take a huge toll – physically, mentally and emotionally – on the person’s family and friends. So, the first thing I would say is well done to you for recognising the impact of this situation on your friend and the need to support her.

After that, I think it’s just about “showing up” in ways that are helpful and caring.

As there is not much detail in your email, I’m not quite sure of the nature of the addiction or if the person involved is getting treatment. What I would say is that it would be a good idea for your friend to access support for herself, whether that is through professional counselling (her GP could probably recommend somebody locally with experience in addiction) or a peer support group, eg the Al Anon family groups ( if alcohol is the issue.

While your friend’s focus is most likely on her son, it is probable that she is not looking after her own emotional needs in this situation. But she needs to put on her own “oxygen mask” first, if you will, so maybe you could offer her some gentle encouragement to seek support for herself.

After that, I think it’s just about “showing up” in ways that are helpful and caring. That could be regular calls or texts to check in on her and offer her a safe space to talk if she needs that. Equally, it could be offering her an opportunity to get away from it and not talk about it for a while too. Whichever option is best for her.

In terms of practical support, think about what would help somebody who might be feeling under severe pressure in their lives. I don’t think you can really beat a few dinners for the freezer, for instance. You could also help her to practice some much-needed self-care by inviting her for a coffee, a walk, a lunch out, a trip to the cinema etc. I understand that none of these actions directly target what is going on with her son, and that she might be initially reluctant to step back from that situation. But if she does start to take those mini “time-outs” away from the pressure cooker environment at home, she will start to see the benefit of giving herself a little breathing space.

I am not an addiction counsellor or anything of the sort, but my understanding is that – as with most things in life – we cannot control another person’s behaviour. We can only control how we respond to it. That can be very difficult to put into practice at the best of times, but hopefully with professional and peer support – and the love of a good friend like yourself – your friend will find the strength she needs to look after herself at this difficult time. I wish you both the best of luck.

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