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Loving Someone in the Grip of Addiction

June 15, 2018

By Beth Passehl

One hundred people die from drug overdoses every day. In February of last year, one of those people was my younger brother, John. A lifelong alcoholic, John became addicted to pain killers after a ruptured appendix many years before, and somewhere along the line, heroin became his best friend. His deadly overdose consisted of fentanyl, cocaine, valium and alcohol.

His death was a heartbreaking loss, but it didn’t surprise anyone. He had hit bottom so many times – we just couldn’t believe he could survive again. He would disappear for weeks at a time, live in a house with no heat, electricity, food, or running water – and in cold Midwest winters. He didn’t shower for weeks at a time. Let’s just forget about eating or basic health care. Every single time I spoke with him, he was hungry – hadn’t eaten in days. All I could do was order take-out food that was delivered to abandoned buildings or empty parking lots. The only medical attention he ever had was after countless rock bottom episodes that ended in emergency rooms or short detox weekends.

Unbelievably, though, he could always find work. He was a brilliant auto body mechanic and had a passion for racing. At one point, he was hopeful and successful. But after years of battling the beast, he was still hopeful but never successful. His life turned into a repetitive cycle of getting just sober enough to function and make promises for change – only to start circling the drain with an uncontrollable addiction that destroyed relationships, hope and truth. I spoke with him the day before he overdosed, and he had started yet another new job at a body shop. He said he was doing better and was bone tired of being so sick all the time (a common mantra among those struggling with addiction). Honestly, how much can the human body take? My idea of rock bottom is forgetting to bring lunch to work.

John’s addiction wasn’t my first rodeo. I come from a huge family – the middle of 9 children – and a long line of addicts. We cover most of the bases – alcohol, heroin, opioids, tobacco. I’ve been a hostage in the tentacles of addicts for most of my life and am here to tell you – it sucks.

I have learned some things along the way that seem to help. As with most coping skills, they can wax and wane in how effective they are. On a good day, these things work pretty well. On the bad days – well, I just try to remember my lunch.

1. Ask yourself – what do you have control over? Not much and certainly not anyone else’s behavior, food or drink choices, daily drama, health issues, shoe size or eye color.

2. Let’s reframe the whole concept of “acceptance.” It means just that – accept the situation – and trust me – it does not mean you have to like it.

3. Ultimately, as part of acceptance we have to learn to let go. Without Guilt. And be aware – guilt comes in more than just one flavor. It can hide behind other seemingly innocent intentions – like trying to be a hero and “fix” things. Guilt in and of itself is only useful for learning a lesson – but first, you have to know when you feel guilty and how you may be hiding it. I am an expert fixer and it only backfires – every time. Learn to let go – it isn’t easy, but it does work.

4. Set boundaries. Most of us fall into some type of enabling response pattern or codependency. Here is what I know about that. When it comes to enabling, don’t send money – send food. Definitely don’t send money – send a care package or pay a cell phone bill. When you are tempted – don’t send money – send love and prayers. Have you ever thought about the Serenity prayer? It is loaded with common sense and soul comfort – I highly recommend it.

5. Ask yourself this hard question – Is your love conditional? Is it based on how the addict was before the addiction or how you think they need to act/reform/pull out of the mud? If possible, it really does help to remember that addiction is a disease and your person is buried beneath the addiction. Getting help for everyone in the family is critical but you can’t force anyone to change.

6. Take extreme care of yourself. I hug into my healthy family and friends. I maintain a strong yoga and meditation practice. I get outside whenever possible and keep a gaggle of furry friends around.

I try to keep a balance in life and use this arsenal of tools to digest the emotions that come from dealing with a loved one’s addiction. In the end, it’s really all I can do.


Beth Passehl, MS, ERYT-200, RYT-500, YACEP, works on WebMD’s editorial staff and serves as the team’s resident expert in yoga and mindfulness. In addition to her Yoga Alliance certifications, Beth is a Level 1 Usui Reiki Practitioner. She has been teaching yoga for over 15 years and is passionate about creating a balanced life and sharing those lessons with others.

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