How To Live with an Addict in the House

By John McMillian 08/11/16

Author Robin Barnett shares the story of her older brother who managed to convince his family that he was not an addict, even after getting shot in a drug house.

Robin Barnett and Living With an Addict in the House
Robin Barnett

“He had a million excuses,” Robin Barnett says ruefully. Barnett is the author of Addict in the House: A No-Nonsense Family Guide Through Addiction and Recovery (New Harbinger), and she’s talking about her older brother, who, twenty-odd years ago, managed to convince her entire family that he was not, in fact, an addict. He preyed on their credulity so effectively that they remained unaware of his disease even after he survived being shot in the chest during an altercation at a drug house.

“He said he’d driven through a wrong neighborhood, and stopped to ask for directions,” Barnett continues, speaking on the phone from her home near Atlantic City, New Jersey. “Then, when he came home to recover, he was very paranoid. Still, we believed his stories... Had we known what we were looking at, life would have been very different for all of us.”

It wasn’t long, however, before her brother’s addiction became scarily conspicuous, and over the years it led Barnett to numerous places she’d never imagined setting foot in: “seedy motels, jails, mental hospitals.” But it also set her upon a satisfying career path. Instead of finishing nursing school, as she’d planned, Barnett started training to become a psychotherapist who would specialize in helping substance abusers. In 2006, she co-founded the Park Bench Group, a drug and alcohol treatment facility in Northfield, New Jersey, and nowadays she appears as an addiction expert on NBC’s The Steve Wilkos Show. 

Addict in the House is Barnett’s first book (though she’s currently working on a second one). Drawing from her personal story and therapeutic experience, it should serve as a vade mecum for those whose loved ones suffer from addiction (or who may be living with a heroin addict). Barnett’s advice is often tough, but sensible, and she includes numerous worksheets designed to help readers clarify their thoughts and manage their feelings. It’s a slender book on an enormous topic, and so I asked her: What part of her message was the most difficult to convey? 

“That you can’t dictate someone else’s recovery,” she says. Normally, she explains, when we want to influence another person’s behavior, we’ll try reasoning with them (or, if that fails, cajoling, bargaining, threatening, or demanding). But none of these approaches are likely to work with an addict. Once a person has become chronically ill from the disease, they’ll have to decide for themselves whether to seek help, take treatment seriously, or remain sober. Sadly, the motivating force is usually pain: Addicts stop using after they’ve had enough of it. 

Still, families can support recovery in plenty of ways. The first thing they need to do, Barnett says, “is to learn what they’re up against.” That means understanding the brain disease theory of addiction, and recognizing the internal conflicts that can drive self-destructive behavior. Meanwhile, they can refuse to accommodate the strategies that addicts typically depend upon: denial, justification, and manipulation. Barnett is also a big believer in the salutary effects of clear and honest communication (even as she’s mindful of how difficult that can often be). Productive conversations with addicts almost always require a delicate touch. Family members should speak truthfully about how they’ve been affected by the disease, but they should avoid venting, or lashing out in anger. They should show compassion for their loved one, but resist the temptation to soothe or coddle them. Timing is important, too. You wouldn’t want to force a tough conversation with an addict, but you shouldn’t delay it indefinitely, either. 

Another chapter in the book is devoted to boundary setting. However awkward it may seem to impose formal constraints on loving relationships, Barnett says that it’s frequently necessary, whether to avoid enabling, or as a means of self-protection. In Addict in the House, Barnett describes having had to do this herself, after her brother called to ask for help on a wintery night in 1994. “What he said was a variation on a familiar theme,” she writes. “‘I’m going to die out here.’ His voice was desperate, demanding. ‘I’m sleeping on a park bench.’”

“I will always love you,” Barnett replied, “but until you decide to live, I can’t help anymore.” 

I asked Barnett whether it was difficult to give that type of advice to others, considering how easily it could go awry.

“Oh gosh, it’s frightening every time,” she says. But it’s often preferable to the alternative, which might involve “witnessing [the addict’s] very slow death, with a sense of total powerlessness… So making the decision to let them go with love, and telling them that you’ll support their sobriety, and their recovery, but not their addiction—and making that very clear distinction—could be a turning point.” One time, Barnett and her mother went so far as to hold funerary ceremonies for her brother, even though he was still alive. “That was part of our recognizing the extent to which the addiction had gone,” she said matter-of-factly. “It sounds morbid, but it was a healing process for the two of us.”

Sometimes, however, even the most carefully constructed boundaries may need to be modified in light of changing circumstances. It’s yet another topic Barnett can discuss through the lens of personal experience.

“My brother had fallen through a glass table in his drug dealer’s house,” she explains. “The table pierced both of his lungs, it filleted his back, he was in intensive care, he was going through DT’s, and he was so seriously ill—physically and psychologically—that there was no place for him to go. Even the homeless shelter would not take him in, because he was so vulnerable.” Recognizing that he wouldn’t otherwise survive, she brought him home. 

And then something unexpected happened. After detoxing, and undergoing a lengthy convalescence, her brother decided he’d suffered under the pall of addiction for long enough. Barnett wound up actively supporting his recovery, but she stresses that his decision to get sober—and all of the very hard work that that entailed—was his alone. Fifteen months later, he enjoys the fellowship of a 12-step group, and he’s training to become a drug and alcohol counselor. Fifteen months is not a long time, and he’s relapsed before. But Barnett’s encounters with her brother’s addiction have given her a sanguine appreciation for the present, and a healthy confidence that whatever happens, she’s acquired the tools she’ll need to pursue a rich and satisfying life.

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John McMillian is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, in Atlanta. His most recent book is Beatles Vs. Stones (Simon & Schuster, 2013).