A Positive Approach

For family members of those struggling with drug abuse or alcoholism

“This pamphlet is to give you, the loved one or family member, a reassuring message – that you are not alone in this difficult time. The situations and emotions are based on my own personal experience and that of others who have faced up to, and dealt with, the addiction of someone about whom they care about deeply.”

Dorothea Bickerton, Dec 1999
Dorothea Bickerton was the founder of CDARS charity, formerly known as Community Drug Helpline. Her legacy lives on as CDARS continues to support individuals struggling with various issues in the local community, upholding the charity's original core values. CDARS can be contacted here: https://www.cdars.org.uk/

A Positive Approach

Family Dynamics

What happens to relatives and loved ones when a drug or alcohol problem is discovered within the family? 


Modern society uses medication to cope with a myriad of problems. Most of us have a wide range of pharmaceuticals in our medicine cabinet, ranging from aspirin to syrups for stomach-ache that contain kaolin and morphine, and cough linctus containing codeine. These medications are so easily accessible, and so it’s easy to abuse them and to become addicted. It's the same with alcohol. When used sensibly, and not excessively, it can add to our lives. But it can also be a catalyst for the path of addiction. 

What kind of person uses illegal drugs or abuses alcohol?
And why do they need to use them? 


Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers to these questions. 

Those who abuse drugs or alcohol started for any number of reasons, but probably the foremost of these would be because they initially enjoyed using them. Other reasons could be: 

Fear of the consequences of using plays no part in the decision to use, in fact many young people enjoy the extra ‘buzz’ of danger that using illegal substances, or drinking underage, engenders. 

It should also be recognised that many people try drugs and drink heavily when young and ‘partying’ – it’s normal to experiment with drugs for a period of time - and eventually decide to stop usage, just as it is normal to drink excessively during your ‘youthful’ years, but to slow down as you get older. It is the minority who try drugs, find they enjoy them, and progress to heavy usage and dependency. As it is a minority who drink excessively as young adults and progress to even heavier usage and dependency as they get older. 

So, the answer to the question is that there’s no stereotypical drug user or alcoholic– anybody could become one. 

What happens to the family of an addict? 


Most likely, the reaction to the discovery of a drug or alcohol problem with a family member or loved one is along the following lines:


Disbelief / Denial / Panic due to ignorance of the issue



Fear / Guilt / Resentment / What did I do wrong?



Pain / Anxiety / Inability to comprehend / Why us?



At this point you will find that the addiction problem begins to supersede all other aspects of family life. It begins to dominate the family’s whole world, infiltrating all situations and everyday routines - at home, work, school, and with friends. You begin to hide the problem and are in a constant state of fear of the negative consequences of your family member’s drug or alcohol abuse. It begins to resemble a treadmill with all roads leading to the same place – it appears that there is no escape. 

No one wants to be labelled ‘a failure,’ but that’s how you feel when everything you try to do, to help the addict and fix the situation, constantly fails. The situation drains you of all energy and hope. Any thoughts of a positive solution start to evaporate, and things only appear to be dark and negative. But let me say now: you are not a failure. You are suffering, and are the victim of someone else’s problem. It is the drug use or alcoholism that’s destroying your family relationships, and draining you emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. Remember that the addiction issues are not of your making; someone you care about deeply has lost their way and this is excruciatingly difficult and painful for you, but it is not your fault, and you are not a failure.

The See-Saw Syndrome 

There may very well be times when you are sucked into the psychological games of the addicted family member. One of the games users tend to play is not unlike the game played by children on a seesaw. In this instance you are at one end of the seesaw and another family member is at the other end. The drug/alcohol user is in the middle and can, at will, send the seesaw up and down, triggering you to struggle with the family member opposite. This is a situation in which family members are played off against each other and it usually ends in fierce arguments, splitting the family unity when it is most vulnerable. In doing so, it conveniently distracts attention from the real problem: the user. 

Relationships within the family unit are often very damaged by the manipulations of the drug or alcohol user. Standing firm and in unity as a family can be very difficult. Often older siblings decide to leave home to avoid the toxicity, parents separate, and discord reigns in the family dynamic. It’s important that you are aware that this can happen and that you try to resist it at all costs. 

What can you do about the drug/alcohol user?
And is it even possible to do anything? 

There is no use in assigning blame for the hurt that drug or alcohol use has caused you and your family. Guilt and blame are detrimental to the user’s recovery at this stage, and only make matters worse. Dealing with a family member or loved one in addiction will be one of the most difficult and demanding times for you, and will require all your resilience and patience. 

This is a time when you need to actively, and regularly, seek the help of your CDARS addiction worker, who will hopefully help you to work your way through the problems as they arise. Use them. It may save you a lot of extra heartache due to rash decisions made in heated moments. 

You will be surprised how strong you can be if you approach each dilemma objectively and constructively. 

Coping Strategies

How do you cope? 

Navigating life with a family member who is addicted to drugs or alcohol will be very difficult, and maybe even impossible to cope with at times, but below is advice that you can use as a basis from which to build your own coping strategies. 

First Steps

A few initial steps might be to: 

It’s crucial that you continue your life; pursuing your goals and interests, so that you give yourself some time to ‘switch off’ and keep your mental, emotional and physical well-being strong and healthy. 

It is also very important that you avail yourself of all the support and advice you can get from: 

Use these as a lifeline, and do not be afraid to reach out when things get difficult and you need to talk to someone. 

Create a contract

Make a contract with yourself, for the benefit of you and other family members. Discuss this with other family members – saying these out loud can help you to believe they are possible. This should include: 

This is a daunting list, and much of it may, at times, seem impossible to achieve. But remember, it is merely a guideline for you to adjust and use as you feel able to, and is not set in stone. 

It’s about progress, not an immediate solution. Be gentle with yourself, you’re doing the best you can. Do not be disheartened – try and take one day at a time. It is very easy to allow your thinking to become clouded by negative thoughts, especially with no sight or hope of a solution. Perhaps trying the following POSITIVE APPROACH might be helpful.

The Positive Approach

What does this require? 



The courage of your convictions, the strength to allow for setbacks, practising patience, firmness, and fairness.


A better understanding of the disease of addiction, leading to an informed approach towards it.


Continuing to love the family member struggling with addiction. However, loving who they are on the inside does not mean loving or accepting their behaviour and actions on the outside.


The most important element of all. You must never lose hope because hope is what makes anything and everything possible.


Believe in yourself, your loved one struggling with addiction, and your ability to conquer the destructive doubts that may overwhelm you.

You can do this.

Ultimately there are three potential paths with addiction. It is the user - and the user only - who can decide the path they wish to take:

The decision rests entirely with the user. 



What is recovery? 


This is when the path they choose is to stop all drug/alcohol misuse. 

Be patient, reaching this point is not easy, and can take time, but it is possible. 

Remember, coming off drugs or alcohol is the easy part – staying off them is the hard part. 

The recovering addict has a lot of work to do to maintain sobriety, and you have your part to play too. 

Some important things to remember: 

A greater understanding will develop and from this will come forgiveness, acceptance, and compassion. You will all begin to grow in hope, faith, and joy at the possibility of a second chance, a clean, fresh chapter. 


It must be recognised that there are certain instances where, through the control and moderation of drug/alcohol usage, rather than complete cessation, a degree of recovery is achieved by the user. This may or may not be acceptable to you, but it is important to recognise this as an achieveable goal for the drug user. 

Reducing use is far harder for the individual to sustain than complete cessation, and sudden or gradual relapses are possible. Relapses are equally possible with complete cessation, but probably easier to avoid if temptation can be removed.

If a relapse occurs, you need to stay strong and do not give up on your loved one.

The sense of failure may be immense, but your loved one will also be feeling this and will be vulnerable to giving up completely. Through you remaining strong and believing in them, you can give them strength to fight again and beat the addiction. 

Please know that relapse is very common and there are many, like you and your family, who have still managed to come through positively and fully recover. 


What happens if the drug/alcohol abuse continues and the situation worsens? 

There are no easy answers to this question. Sometimes, despite all the efforts from both you and the user to get free from addiction, the disease is just too powerful. 

The person you once loved appears to no longer exist, and has been replaced by this drug/alcohol-abusing stranger who is destroying your life. This sad fact brings deep heartache, together with an enormous sense of loss, that is akin to bereavement. 

You’ll feel like you’re in a permanent state of stress and anxiety, unable to reach a constructive decision on how to deal with the problem. There will be feelings of complete helplessness and being out of control. 

This might be the point when you have no other choice but to ask the user to leave your home, and to cease all contact. 

There may have been emotional, physical, or verbal abuse against you, and damage to your property, that leaves you in constant fear of the user, feeling that your home is no longer your haven of safety, but a prison and dangerous. These feelings are very damaging to your mental state, and you must put yourself and your own wellbeing first. 

Often, unless you do decide to take drastic measures, the user will not take your threats seriously. This leads to an important point – do not make threats you have no intention of upholding – this will only weaken your case and gives the drug user the upper hand. They will continue to think your threats are empty and manipulate you further, so always follow through with the actions you have stated. 


How do you tell someone you love to leave your home? 

A handwritten letter or an email is one possible way – stating your reasons for this action, and perhaps giving them notice to leave by the end of the week, or a date on which you can agree mutually. 

If you are too frightened to do this, then a legal notice for them to vacate your home in the form of an injunction can be drawn up. However this might incur financial expense, as you will need a solicitor to draw up the document for you. If you do choose this route, once the injunction has been issued, the user will risk arrest by the police if they attempt to return to your property, as it will be a breach of the injunction. 

Whatever you decide, it will be difficult and painful, but remember: you have tried all other ways of dealing with the problem, and none has been successful. 

This course of action often does lead the user to finally face the fact that they really do have a problem. They can no longer rely on their caring family to tolerate the manipulation and abuse. 

Choosing this drastic measure may be what it takes for the user to decide they’ve had enough of addiction, and return to you for help. If they do, remember the dependency on drugs or alcohol will still be very present and the cravings still there, so proceed with caution and don’t immediately trust this person – remember they are still actively using. 



This pamphlet would not be complete if it did not address the possibility of a fatality because of the abuse of drugs or alcohol. This could be caused by several circumstances, the most common being an overdose, or permanent fatal damage to organs such as the liver or heart. There is also the possibility of suicide; the person can no longer endure or cope with their drug or alcohol problem, and so decide to take their own life. 

There are no words to express the feelings that these tragic situations inflict on family members and loved ones. There is no remedy to overcome the shock, despair, and grief. The family, having coped for so long in the hope that their loved one will overcome their addiction problems, now must face the realisation that it was all for nothing, and this causes an immense sense of defeat and hopelessness. 

Advise may seem pointless at this time, and others can only silently sympathise with the suffering family. Many people find strength in prayer, but there really is no hard or fast rule on what is acceptable and what is not in this difficult time. Everyone is different. 

It must be said though that as human beings we seldom speak of death as a topic of conversation, and yet it’s something that must come to us all in the end. The pain of loss for someone you have cared for and loved unconditionally, for so long, will trigger many different emotions; among them can be resentment and anger at the injustice of fate. The saying “Time heals” springs to mind. Hopefully it will. You may never wholly recover from this tragedy, but without doubt you will learn to live with it. 

If your loved one has passed away because of their alcohol or drug abuse, then your loved one is now free from the bonds of addiction and is, at last, at peace. Would you wish it otherwise? Loving someone means learning to ‘let go’ at the right time. Be comforted in the knowledge that their pain is now over. By the same token, may yours ease with time too. 

If you still find things impossibly hard and you still cannot overcome the grief, perhaps reaching out to a bereavement service or support group might be able to help you through the process. 

"I do hope that, having read this pamphlet, you feel better able to cope, and that the advice

and support offered will help sustain and comfort you. Nothing in life is wasted, and it may

be that, what you have learnt from this experience will empower you to empathise with the

pain and struggle involved with drug and alcohol abuse in a far more meaningful way."


This pamphlet was written by Dorothea Bickerton, Founder and Director of CDARS, 1985-2000

Editors note, 2023:Some points of reference have been updated to reflect advancements in internet communications.