Supporting Sobriety: A Guide for Families Dealing with Addiction

In recent decades, clinical professionals have begun to recognise addiction as a kind of disorder. This posits substance use disorders (such as alcoholism and drug addiction) within a ‘disease model.’ That suggests that, clinically, addiction is understood as a distinct type of health condition. Addiction is classed as a chronic disorder. This means that, by nature, it is both long-term and pervasive and has a range of effects on the individual with an addiction.

Knowing how to support your loved one during such a difficult time is not always easy. Addiction is a complex phenomenon; it is understandable to feel overwhelmed. It can also be hard to know how to look after yourself when it feels like your world is suddenly off balance. Sometimes, those supporting sobriety need access to support themselves. We hope to provide an insight into the rehab process, offer practical ways to support your loved one, and also introduce methods of self-care to ensure you are looking out for yourself.

Key signs of addiction: What to look for

Addiction does not live in a vacuum. This means that addiction regularly impacts more than just an individual’s relationship with substances; it can colour their social, emotional, professional, economic and familial commitments, too. The impact of addiction spreads in a kind of ripple effect, in a way that can often sweep family and friends up in the tumult. An estimated 100 million individuals worldwide are impacted by a family member’s addiction.

Sometimes, we are not always sure about what constitutes an addiction; the gap between heavy use of substances and dependency can often seem hazy. One of the first things those supporting sobriety can do is to learn a little about how addictions manifest. A key way to do this is to be able to recognise the signs of addiction.

Addiction symptoms are typically arranged into three areas:

  1. Physical Symptoms
  2. Psychological Symptoms
  3. Behavioural Symptoms
Physical symptoms
 are the effects of addiction that occur in the body.

These can include:

  • feeling tired and low in energy 
  • struggling to sleep (disturbed sleep, insomnia, bad dreams, sleeping at unusual times of day)
  • frequent headaches 
  • frequently feeling (or being) sick
  • bloodshot, red or sore eyes 
  • frequently dilated pupils 
  • aches in the muscles
  • changes in appetite (and weight)
Psychological symptoms
 are the emotional or mental effects of addiction.

Common examples are:

  • unpredictable changes in mood 
  • bursts of energy 
  • agitation or snappiness
  • low mood 
  • little pleasure in previously enjoyed activities 
  • appearing anxious or paranoid 
Behavioural symptoms
are signs of addiction that can be seen in an individual’s actions, such as:

  • social withdrawal
  • reduced attention to hygiene and personal appearance 
  • financial problems
  • borrowing money 
  • conflict with friends and family 
  • difficulties at work or school 
  • difficulties maintaining responsibilities (such as childcare)
  • appearing to be dishonest or deceitful

If your loved one is presenting with any of these symptoms in relation to drug or alcohol use, it is likely that they are dealing with an addiction.

How can addiction affect others?

The shadow of addiction can be felt by those closest to the individual struggling. If a family member is dealing with substance dependency, you may begin to feel the effects of this second-hand.

Families dealing with addiction may encounter:

  • unpredictable changes in your loved one’s mood


  • tension in romantic relationships


  • stress amongst children in the household


  • potential financial issues


  • potential engagement with criminal activity


  • potential risk of unemployment


  • second-hand stress


  • overwhelm


  • feeling guilty or ashamed


  • feeling confused


  • feeling angry


  • a change to the family unit (separation, change in living arrangements, removal of children from the home)

Children living in a household where addiction is present are more likely to exhibit signs of emotional distress, reduced achievement at school and lower engagement in social activities. These children are more likely to experience mental health issues and potentially develop addictions in the future.

Spouses and other close family members may find that supporting a loved one with an addiction contributes to their own stress levels, leading to instances of anxiety, depression, and even burnout.

Addiction recovery: An overview of the rehab process

Addiction rehab can be daunting for the individual seeking treatment – but it can also be a minefield for their loved ones. Knowing how rehab may take shape can help to quell some of this anxiety for family members.
Rehab usually works in four steps:

  1. assessment/ admission
  2. detox
  3. rehab
  4. aftercare

Assessment and admission

Before treatment begins, some form of contact with a professional needs to be made. For some people, this step can be harder than for others. This is because people struggling with addiction can sometimes find it difficult to realise that they have a problem. There are ways to approach this, such as through brief intervention. Brief intervention is when family members can arrange for their loved one to meet with a member of staff who can help them come to accept that they may have an issue with substances. This conversation can catalyse the beginning of recovery both formally (through the mobilisation of a treatment plan) and informally (through the identification of addiction as present).

Assessment typically involves the answering of questions about substance use and mental health history. After this, clinicians can more accurately recommend the most appropriate type of support for your loved one.


Detoxing is part of the vast majority of addiction treatment packages. It is used when a person is physically dependent on a drug. You may find that during the detox phase, your loved one may experience a dip in mood and possibly some difficult physical side effects, such as tremors, headaches and sickness. These are known as withdrawal symptoms. Whilst this can be hard to witness, these withdrawals will be monitored and managed by professionals to ensure the safety of your loved one.


After your loved one has detoxed, they will be able to begin engaging with therapy. This can take many forms. You may be offered the opportunity to join your loved one in family therapy sessions. This can allow you the chance to gain more insight into addiction, as well as learn methods of managing your own thoughts and feelings during this complex time.


Families supporting addiction may be concerned about what happens when formal rehab ends. When your loved one leaves rehab, support does not stop there. Your family member will be offered comprehensive support as part of an aftercare programme. This can allow both you and your loved one to ease back into everyday life outside of the rehab setting with greater peace of mind.

Supporting sobriety: Practical steps

If your loved one has not yet started rehab, or you are looking for methods to supplement their treatment, there are ways that families can support sobriety. Research indicates that the healthy involvement of family members can positively impact the overall recovery and general wellbeing of individuals in addiction treatment.

Some practical ways to support family members on the road to sobriety are:

  • encouraging openness and honesty – reassure them that you are there to listen
  • research forms of support in your area
  • offer to attend appointments with your loved one
  • generally be more present with your loved one – offer to spend more time together
  • try not to minimise the effect addiction has on the family – mentioning how substance use is affecting you may
  • allow them to gain perspective
  • engage in family therapy where appropriate
  • visit your loves one in inpatient rehab

How to support yourself while supporting a loved one

Whilst you may see your loved one as needing all of your time and support, it is important to remember to look after yourself. As the idiom goes, ‘You cannot pour from an empty cup.’ It is essential that you find appropriate help and outlets to ensure that you continue to nurture yourself throughout this difficult time.

  • ensure you have a support network you can turn to (a friend, another family member)
  • engage with formal support (attending support groups)
  • engage with family therapy
  • know when you need distance – for example, if visiting rehab daily is too much, remember you can set boundaries
  • see if you qualify for additional support for caring responsibilities
  • try to maintain your social life – continue to engage with family and friends
  • make time for things that make you feel happy and relaxed, such as hobbies
  • practice mindfulness
  • try not to withdraw – remember you can still talk about your feelings
  • if you need to, seek support from a therapist

A UKAT, we know that the effects of addiction are not contained. They often have a ripple effect. We know that sometimes, getting caught up in the waves is very easy. For that reason, we offer a free family support programme to assist those affected by a family member’s addiction. The support group aims to provide a community space for you to feel heard, receive support and build connections.

If you feel that you need urgent support for your own mental health, we offer support for conditions outside of addiction. We can help you to manage conditions such as anxiety and depression and can help you to navigate chronic stress and burnout.