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Taking Boundaries to the Extreme: When it’s Time to Put the Foot Down

Having an addict in your life is difficult. His behavior may be selfish and unpredictable. He may steal from you or try to manipulate you. It’s natural to want to be supportive, especially early on when you can reasonably justify the addict’s behavior by saying, “He’s just going through a tough time.” This might mean telling his boss he’s sick when he’s really hungover or drunk. It might mean covering other responsibilities, especially when others might suffer for his negligence. At the extreme, it might mean giving him money for drugs or alcohol so he doesn’t have to steal or worse. It’s sometimes hard to know when supporting becomes enabling.

It’s even harder to know when to adopt extreme boundaries like changing the locks and putting his stuff on the curb. In short, this should be a last resort. If there is nothing else you can possibly do for him, you might have to wash your hands of him, but there is a lot of room between enabling and cutting ties.

Perhaps your first consideration should be the addict’s age. The younger the addict is, the less a tough-love style approach will help. A teenage addict, for example is at an age when he doesn’t have many resources–social or cognitive–to deal with being locked out. It might make his situation much worse and make his treatment much more difficult, if he ever enters treatment. Difficult though it may be, showing extra patience with a young addict’s behavior may be necessary for any hope of recovery.

Another consideration is personal safety. If you feel threatened, you have to protect yourself. Keep him out if you can and call the police if you have to. Recovery is a long-term problem and safety is an immediate problem. See to your safety first and deal with the addiction later.

Along similar lines, make sure you aren’t neglecting your own needs for the sake of the addict’s. Addicts are often manipulative and they want to make their problem your problem. They can’t accept responsibility for their problems and some of their blame will likely fall on you. If you accept that blame, you may feel responsible for the addict’s problems. Don’t let him put the blame on you, especially if it detracts from your health, your work, or your other responsibilities.

Ideally, extreme boundaries should be reserved as a credible threat. Your ultimate goal is to get the addict into treatment. If you lock them out and cut off all support, you give away your leverage. If you really want someone to get into treatment immediately, it helps to remind them both of everything they have to gain by getting treatment  and what there is still left to lose if they refuse.

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