How Do You Trust an Addict | Alcoholic

How Do You Trust an Addict | Alcoholic

So how do you learn to trust an addict | alcoholic?

If you’re asking this question, you’ve likely experienced hundreds of their broken promises or engaged in zillions of crazy-making arguments with them over issues you’d thought resolved or so picky-yuny you can’t figure out why you’re talking (let alone arguing) about them! You may be accused of things you’re shocked they could think of you and then wrapped yourself in the warmth of their heart-felt apology the next day, only to be accused of those same things a month later. You may even have agreed to loan them money, buy them a car, overlooked their curfew or convinced yourself it was just a “little white lie.” You may have spent countless hours defending yourself against accusations, such as, “you always put the children first” or “what, don’t you trust me” or “if you’d try a little harder to be kind and loving” or “how hard is it to cook a decent meal” or “can’t a guy stop with his buddies after work” or ________________________ . Likely the list seems pretty long about now.

Back to the initial question, “So how do you trust an addict | alcoholic?”

The answer is simple AND oh so hard, “You must first learn to trust yourself.”

As crazy as that sounds, it’s true. Why?

The only way you’ve gotten to the place you are in in your relationship with your alcoholic | addict loved one is your belief that you are dealing with your loved one’s true self (the person before drinking | drugging that you’re initially convinced and eventually pray will emerge and end the nightmare). You do not realize that as long as your loved one drinks or drugs in any amount (assuming they are an addict | alcoholic), you will NEVER be able to trust them. EVER. Because, sadly, their lying, stealing, cheating and other untrustworthy behaviors are part of their brain disease.

What do I mean by this? And how in the heck are you supposed to learn to trust yourself? Here are three suggestions:

Know Exactly What You Are Dealing With – Addiction

The insanity described above is not about you or the kids or what you have or have not done. It is solely and entirely about the behaviors that occur as a result of the brain changes caused by alcohol or drugs. You’ve known this at some level all along – that’s why you kept at it – trying everything within your power to make them want to cut down or stop. But you didn’t understand that what you (and your loved one) were really dealing with is a brain disease – the brain disease of addiction.

Addiction is a brain disease. Learning about the disease is an important first step in learning to trust yourself.

Addiction is a brain disease. Learning about the disease is an important first step in learning to trust yourself.

Addiction (whether to drugs or alcohol) chemically and structurally changes a person’s brain. I mean seriously chemically and structurally changes it. And it is these brain changes that make it impossible for your loved one to change their behaviors when drinking or drugging because the brain controls everything a person thinks, feels, says and does.

I wrote this post, “Why Addicts | Alcoholics Lie, Cheat and Steal,” to help explain why.  In this post, you will find a host of resources that explains the brain disease of addiction, addiction cravings, why it is that some people who abuse drugs or alcohol as much as another person never cross the line to addiction, and how it is that drugs or alcohol hijack a person’s brain and therefore that person’s behaviors. Learning, believing and not wavering from the facts about addiction is the first step to learning to trust yourself. Because it is only then that you will be able to take the next steps to stopping all denial, cover-ups, deal-making, “discussions,”… and focus on the only thing you can change, YOU.

Now you may be asking, “Yeah, but, how to I know if my loved one is really an addict | alcoholic?” The short answer is, “You don’t have to.” The issue – the sole issue – is the way they behave when they drink or drug. But if you want “proof” in the form of a self-assessment for drinking patterns, please check out these two resources: Rethinking Drinking by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and the Alcohol Use Disorders Test (AUDIT) by the World Health Organization. As for a self-assessment for drug use patterns, here is the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD)’s questionnaire, “Am I Drug Addicted?

And please know – not everyone whose behaviors change when they drink or drug is an addict | alcoholic. In fact there are far more alcohol or drug abusers than there are addicts | alcoholics. Nonetheless, their unacceptable behaviors when drinking | drugging are still unacceptable. Given this post is about addiction, I won’t go further here, other than to share this link to a short video explaining the difference, “Alcoholism is a Disease and It’s Not Alcohol Abuse.”

Now What?

Funny you should ask, as that’s the tag end of one of my book titles, Loved One In Treatment? Now What!

While you are sifting through the resources mentioned above, I suggest you order this short book (just 100 pages). Yes, it’s mine, but this is not about book sales. Rather it’s about giving you the information you need to understand what this coping with a loved one’s substance abuse | addiction | alcoholism has done to you. [And please know, your loved one does not need to be in treatment, nor even considering it, for you to benefit from reading this book.]

The first half of the book is about your loved one’s brain and the secondhand half is about yours, the family member | friend. This is the book I wished I’d been able to find some 10 years ago when I first started a similar journey, and I wrote it with family members | friends (and addicts | alcoholics and anyone else interested in understanding all of this) in mind. It even has a checklist to guide you through next steps.

And while you wait for your book to arrive, breathe. Breathe. Breathe. You’ve taken a HUGE first step, one that is very important to learning to trust yourself – in other words, to trust your assessment of the situation, regardless of whether your loved one ever agrees with you or not.

If your loved one insists on the crazy behaviors outlined in the opening to this post, here’s a suggested response, “I love you, but your drinking | drugging behaviors are a problem, and I am in the process of understanding what this all means. Until then, I am not going to talk about any of this.” Your reply really can be short and sweet. You do not have to explain nor get their acceptance (nor are you able to, really, because if that were the case, it would have already happened in any one of your previous arguments).

Know It Takes Time

Darn! I found this especially difficult because I was so ready for it to be done. But just know – truly – taking steps to take back your life – to trust yourself – will be the best thing you can do for your relationship with your addict | alcoholic loved one and for yourself.

I’ll leave you with one last post link because of the resources it shares that may help you with this effort, “First Things First – When Recovery From Addiction Feels Overwhelmingly Difficult, Keep It Simple.”

Bottom Line

It’s not possible, nor should you, trust your addict | alcoholic loved one until s/he makes the decision to get help (and there are many ways they can be helped, by the way). In the meantime, it’s okay to be selfish – meaning to do what you need to do to figure things out – because that is what will give you the strength to trust yourself, to stand your ground, to set your healthy boundaries. This post by Rachael, Author and Owner of, can help with this concept, “Setting Personal Boundaries.”

And know – you are not bad or unsupportive or uncaring or the cause of anything. You just want to be calm and sane, again, and that, in and of itself, is okay because you’re worth it!


Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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28 Responses to How Do You Trust an Addict | Alcoholic

  1. Hi Lisa,

    It is so important to take care of yourself first when trying to deal with addiction in the family. I like your line, “You must first learn to trust yourself.” How can you trust anyone else or make could decisions until you have all the facts and understand addiction? Your book is a must read for anyone dealing with this disease and I appreciate your other resources.

  2. Kyczy Hawk says:

    We have been working on this as part of our “Non harming” discussions on Mondays. How do we keep from perpetuating a self harm by continuing a relationship with and active addict? How do we continue self care and boundaries when they are in early recovery? And how DO you figure out who you are when you have squelched this being while in survival mode. Thank goodness this journey is a step at a time a moment at a time and we have the support and wisdom of people like you.

    • Sounds like some very interesting discussions you’re group is having, Kyczy – that must be lots of fun to share ideas of this sort with such a dynamic group. Of the Qs you’ve listed, the one that really took me a great deal of time, therapy, 12 step work, research… to answer was “And how DO you figure out who you are when you have squelched this being while in survival mode.”

  3. I love it Lisa. I love the directness that says you can’t trust them as long as they are still drinking/drugging. Point blank. Done. And while that may be hard to take, it’s pretty simple and easy to understand. No guessing about when, under what circumstances, to worry or get confused about. At such times for families dealing with someone who is using, when everything can seem so overwhelming and muddled, I think they can really benefit from this clarity! Thank you so much for this…

    • You’re welcome, Leslie. When I finally figured out it was that simple (and the science behind why it was that simple), it was like the doors of my world flew open. Of course it took a heck of a lot of work on myself to actually pass through them, but everything that I did in that direction made for wonderful moments and days and healthier relationships along the way.

  4. Herby Bell says:


    I was having a conversation with a friend last night who told me about a conversation he had recently with his daughter in recovery. He referred to her as his daughter, “the addict.” I asked him if “the addict” was just a snapshot of ALL of what she is. He paused and we launched into a longer conversation about how he sees her, how he CAN see her and ultimately, how he has become so much more compassionate and helpful by first, “learning to trust himself.”

    NOW, thanks to the ever prolific and knowledgable Lisa Frederiksen, I get to send him this article. Thank You!

  5. Jody Lamb says:

    This is so, so full of truth. Thank you, Lisa. I spent years sniffling and worrying over broken promises, disappointments and let downs. I did not recognize my loved one’s alcoholism as a disease. The person failing me was, in my eyes, the very person who’d loved me and taken such good care of me years before. It was devastating and extremely confusing.

    “The answer is simple AND oh so hard, ‘You must first learn to trust yourself.'”

    I was an adult when I finally realized I needed to truly trust myself to make decisions based on what was good for ME!

    Thanks for all of your amazing efforts, Lisa!

    • Thank you so much, Jody – I know you know exactly what this is about. Unfortunately, it took me until my 50s before I figured it out. I love your book, “Easter Ann Peters Operation Cool” and urge anyone with children ages 8-13 (or who knows children of that age) going through this – living in a family with untreated, unhealthily discussed, undiagnosed alcoholism – to pick up a copy and give it to that child. You could change that child’s life.

  6. Tired says:

    I am tired of reading. I am tired of thinking. Tired of this being the focus of my life. is it time to let go or try one last attempt.

    • Please make one more attempt… try this hotline – there are people on the other end of the phone that can help – no matter what you are struggling with — please reach out to them 1-800-273-8255

      • Tired says:

        Oh no sorry you misunderstood. I am not suicidal i am tired of having a child that is an addict ! Tired of searching for answers . Just plain tired of this disease and its impact to our family. It’s been almost 7 years we have hung onto hope and seems we are full circle now. Back where we started. He’s been to rehab, sober living, in Suboxone program, and failed all attempts at sobriety. Sorry for the misunderstanding

  7. Honorcode1 says:

    Can you trust a “recovering” heroin addict who is living with you, who has been clean for over a year, with money and or how much at a time and or how much per day. Can you give them for instance $100 to go to the grocery store, or can you let them pay your bills, or trust them with a credit card number, expiration date-code to make a one time purchase or to carry in their wallet to pay only medical bills, she has no insurance and I work…? I realize my question forces you to give a direct response, whereas a lot of the comments and questions on the web are of a non practical-general emotional trust issues. Or, do you tell them to get a job and that is the money they can use any way they want to? Should you marry someone like this? Are pre nuptials a smart choice in case they relapse and leave? Or should you just live together, have your own things and just live and let live. If they stay clean they do, if they don’t they don’t? If a person claims to be a Christian does that help you to trust them more?

    • Dear Honorcode1,

      So many excellent questions. Before I answer, please know that none of this is advice – it is only information.

      The answer to your questions has more to do with what you can tolerate, and by this I mean, it takes time for the addict | alcoholic’s brain to heal, to re-wire, and while that is going on, even in spite of their best intentions, they may relapse. This post, Why Addiction Relapse Can Be Stronger Than the Determination to Stay Clean,” explains

      So you, then, need to take actions that protect you – this does not mean you don’t want to trust, nor that you can’t trust, but rather it means you are taking care of your own life, your own needs on par with the addict | alcoholic doing what they need to do for themselves. So in the case of money for groceries, you may wish to purchase a store card with a certain balance on it, which can then be used for groceries at that particular store, and you will have more peace of mind, so to speak, not worrying whether she’ll take the cash to spend on drugs. You could arrange with her doctor to pay the medical bills yourself vs giving her cash to pay. As for the credit card number, again, the question is how much angst does that cause for you? If she needs a credit card, you could set up a separate checking account with a debit card that acts as a credit card and then only load the amount of money you are willing to “loose” onto the card. And by “loose,” I don’t mean you presume she is going to overspend, but it’s for your peace of mind, again. And as a person in recovery, she will likely understand your concerns. When a person is active in their disease so much havoc in wrecked in the lives of those who love them – it’s natural that all is not well for everyone else once they start their recovery.

      Most of all know that setting these sorts of boundaries is NOT going to make her relapse.

      Whether a person claims to be or is a Christian does not have bearing on whether they’ll relapse. Many Christians and non-Christians relapse and many don’t.

      As for prenups – that is certainly one way to protect your assets in marriage.

      Please feel free to email me directly at or call me at 650-362-3026 PST.

  8. Karen Isabelli says:

    When someone is in recovery over 4 years but misuses non narcotic prescription meds to get a little buzz or numb out are they “still abusing or using”?

  9. Adam Heyes says:

    I really liked this article. I’ve always believed in the idea that you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of someone else. Same for loving yourself before you can someone else. But I’ve never actually thought of the concept of trusting myself before I can trust someone else. I think the bottom line is that if someone is actively addicted, they cannot be trusted, because getting the fix will always be the highest priority, and they will do whatever is necessary including lying to get their fix. I think the ability to trust someone in recovery is correlated with their recovery time, and by the consistency of trustworthy acts. People really do have the power to change. Trusting our own intuition and gut feeling is usually accurate.

  10. Veronica says:

    Hi Lisa, was wondering what book would be best for my situation. Father of my children suffers from this brain disease. I’m always working on what I should and shouldn’t say. My biggest problem is becoming so cold after a drinking episode there’s no connection at all. I know it takes time to learn detaching in love and setting boundaries. In your opinion, what would be a good first and second book to read.

  11. Neil says:

    I personally find it hard to identify if someone is hooked onto substance abuse. I lost a colleague due to that and I’m feeling bad for not being aware then. I could have identified his addiction and probably save him. Any tips on the identifying part? Thanks

    • Hi Neil,
      It’s so difficult to identify and generally depends on how much interaction you have with a person. Generally, it’s behavioral changes – not showing up for work or a meeting, calling in sick, drinking too much at company functions and then exhibiting drinking behaviors, driving while impaired, having relationship difficulties at home. These behavioral changes do not necessarily indicate an addiction – they also occur when a person drinks or uses more of another drug than their brain and body can process, and the chemical, then, changes how their brain works, which is what changes behaviors. Feel free to contact me via my email at, and we can set up a no-charge phone call so that I might get a more complete picture to better answer your question. ~Lisa

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