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Supporting someone with a drug or alcohol addiction

Being a carer for someone with a drug or alcohol addiction can be rewarding but it is often very challenging too. Having an addiction can affect every aspect of someone’s life as well as the lives of the people around them. As a carer for someone with an addiction, it is normal to experience a wide range of different emotions including anger, frustration and fear.

You may not even think of yourself as a carer at all. You may just think of it as ‘being there’ for a friend or relative. But if your support allows them to manage their everyday needs and stay safe, then you are their carer. You don’t even have to see them in person; you could provide all your support at the other end of the phone and still count as a carer.

It is also common for other people to not understand or appreciate your caring role too. They may not realise that the person you care for needs support at all, as addictions are often hidden from others. The person with the addiction may even say they don’t want or need your help. It can therefore sometimes feel like a thankless task, but remember the difference you are making. The person you care for has a much greater chance of recovering from their addiction with support than they do alone.

We provide some advice and guidance below for how to navigate your caring role.

It can be difficult to know how best to help someone with an addiction. You might worry that you will say or do the wrong thing and make things worse.

It is also hard to know whether you are helping them or ‘enabling’ them. Remember that helping someone with an addiction involves doing whatever means they are more likely to tackle their addiction. If the support you are giving means that they are actually less likely to get help, and more likely to carry on with their addictive behaviours because you are allowing them to function on a day-to-day basis, then you may be enabling rather than helping them.

Here are our tips for providing help to someone with a drug or alcohol addiction:

Encourage them to seek treatment. This isn’t always an easy conversation to have, as confronting their addiction might be very difficult for them. They may not even admit they have a problem at all, or be willing to make changes. They may be scared of the consequences of getting help, or feel awkward, embarrassed or ashamed about admitting their addiction. But it is important that you try and persuade them to get help, without threatening them. Why not try showing them the NHS guidance about what will happen when they seek help, which they might find reassuring.

Let them set the pace and be patient. They might not be in the right place to ask for the help they need at that moment. But letting them know you are there when they are ready to seek help can be really important.

Try to stay calm. Getting angry at them is only going to make the situation worse. Many people with addictions begin drinking or using drugs to help manage stress, so creating more stress for them is likely only to push them further towards the addictive behaviours.

Reserve judgement as much as possible and try not to blame them for their addiction. This can be really hard when there are often lots of complicated emotions tied up in how you feel about them and their addiction. But criticizing, nagging or lecturing them just won’t help.

Avoid addictive substances yourself, even if you think you don’t have a problem with them or you are using them in moderation. Otherwise they may say you are being hypocritical. It will also help to show them that you are willing to change too.

Avoid controlling them or their behaviour, even if you are trying to look after them. Remember that they are a grown adult and have to make their own choices, even if they are ones you don’t agree with. The only person who you have control over is yourself.

Don’t protect them from the consequences of their addiction. They need to know that it has repercussions for both them and the people around them. Without knowing this, it is unlikely they will seek treatment. Although it can be tempting to want to protect them from these consequences, it won’t help them in the longer term. The exception to this is when they might do something to hurt themselves or others, such as drinking and driving.

Establish boundaries to protect them, yourself and everyone else in your life. Try to stay firm and not give in to their attempts to undermine these boundaries, whatever they might say or do to persuade you. Hold your ground and remind yourself that you are practicing tough love.

Don’t expect miracles to happen overnight, even when they do get help. Addictions are often complicated and there is rarely an easy fix.

Respect their privacy. You may want to talk about the situation openly, but they may not. Let them tell friends and family about their addiction and any help they are getting when they are ready to do so.

Don’t worry if you do get it wrong occasionally. Caring for someone with an addiction is not easy, and everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Just keep doing your best.

Alongside the normal, day-to-day events, you will occasionally encounter things that are out of the ordinary. Although it is not always easy to plan for these, it can still help to learn about them in advance so that you feel more prepared. This will help you to stay calm and feel in control in what can sometimes be very stressful situations.

If you think the person you care for’s life is at risk, that they are suicidal, or may have overdosed then you need to get them urgent medical attention. Either take them to A&E straight away or call 999 for an ambulance.

If you think that they are safe for now but still need some urgent help, then contact NHS 111 or their GP surgery for an emergency appointment.

You can take a look at our guide ‘Planning for emergencies as a carer’ for more information.

It is very common to worry about the financial implications of looking after a friend or relative, and it can be confusing to understand the support that is available and how you can access it. The good news is we have got a full and comprehensive overview of everything from benefits to grants in our ‘Getting financial support as a carer’ guide.

Caring for someone with a drug or alcohol addiction can be a big responsibility, but many people are still able to combine this role with paid external work as well. If you want to be able to do both, take a look at our guide ‘Working when you are caring’ for advice on how to manage this balance successfully.

Caring for someone with an addiction can significantly affect your relationships. Some carers find that they become closer with the person they care for. In many cases, however, it can put additional strains on your relationship.

Alongside this, becoming a carer can also have an impact on all of the other relationships in your life too, both positively and negatively.

For advice and support on ways to manage this, take a look at our guide ‘How your relationships can change when you become a carer’.

As a carer it is common to prioritise the person you care for’s needs over your own. But it is vital that you make sure you also look after yourself. Not only are your own needs important, you also need to stay well so that you can keep looking after your friend or relative too.

You might want to think about accessing a support group such as Al-Anon (for people affected by someone else’s drinking) or Nar-Anon (for people affected by someone else’s drug use).

For more general advice, see our ‘Looking after yourself as a carer’ guide for advice on how to keep yourself well.

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