Being a caregiver is one of the most selfless roles anyone can fulfill. In many cases, it means putting someone else’s needs above your own, sacrificing your time and peace of mind, and finding higher levels of patience and understanding. It can create a sense of purpose, but it can also be very taxing and physically burdensome. The weight may even be extremely emotional, especially if the care involves a terminal condition and if no other person shares the load. Whether the role consists of providing care for a cancer patient or an ill, disabled or elderly person, the demands can drive many caregivers to use and abuse substances to cope.

Some caregivers may misuse depressant drugs like alcohol and benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, etc.), while others may misuse stimulant medications like Adderall and Concerta. Some opt for illicit drugs (crack cocainemeth, etc.), or they might misuse prescription drugs to treat the various mental strains associated with their day-to-day responsibilities, including anxiety and loneliness. In fact, according to a 2008 study published in the “Alzheimer Disease & Associated Disorders” journal, perceived patient suffering can independently contribute to family caregiver depression and medication use.

Just as with anyone who abuses a particular substance, there are extreme risks involved in caregiver substance addiction. The good news is, if you’re a caregiver in need, there are also resources available that can help you and the person(s) you’re caring for.

Types of Caregivers

There are various types of caregivers, and the conditions of each aren’t always the same as the others. Some involve around-the-clock care and physical strength while others are less intensive and time-consuming. A caregiver can be a relative, friend or hired professional. Some of the most common roles include caregivers:

  • For cancer patients: The role of a caregiver for a cancer patient goes far beyond providing hands-on care. This service might include helping with medication and meals, and managing doctor visits and schedules. In many cases, the caregiver’s role changes as the cancer treatment changes. Other potential duties include being the decision maker, communicator and advocate for situations that involve treatment, information and support.
  • For the chronically or terminally ill: Caring for a chronically or terminally ill individual typically involves serving as an advocate while providing emotional, physical and financial support. These duties may include making medical decisions, providing personal care and managing hygiene (showering, toileting, etc.)
  • For the intellectually disabled: An intellectual disability can impact a person’s ability to live and work independently. Because of this, the duties of caregivers usually include assisting with job placement, banking, health care and transportation. Caregivers for the intellectually disabled may also need to help with bathing, dressing and feeding depending on the extent of the disability.
  • For the physically disabled: Physical disabilities encompass a wide range of conditions that impact a person’s overall mobility. Caregivers for the physically disabled can ease daily activities by helping with chores, preparing meals, running errands, and assisting with bathing and grooming. They may also direct light physical therapy exercises.
  • For the elderly: A caregiver for the elderly can help ease many of the physical and mental challenges that come with the golden years, making daily life easier and more pleasant. While the duties of an elderly caregiver may vary, they usually include assistance with walking and light exercise, meal preparation and cleanup, light housework, bathing, dressing, grooming and errands. Caregivers for the elderly also provide a valued source of companionship for those who might otherwise be alone.

Mental Effects of Caregiver Substance Abuse

The demands of being a caregiver are many, and they can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion as well as mental disorders over time. Add substance abuse to the mix, and these effects can worsen. But the negative effects of being a caregiver can exist whether substances are present or not. They include:

  • Social isolation and loneliness: If a caregiver has to be available 24/7 to care for someone, it can cause them to become isolated from others, which can lead to loneliness. Having to sacrifice their schedule and free time can also make it difficult to maintain healthy friendships and build a romantic relationship.
  • Depression: Another potential emotional toll of being a caregiver, depression can slowly seep into their life while they are dedicating their time to someone else. Caring for someone on a daily basis and juggling the needs of that person with their own can be distressing, especially if the person is terminally ill. Knowing there may not be any relief or payoff for these efforts, and watching a loved one suffer may also take a toll on the caregiver’s happiness.
  • Anxiety and stress: Having to make difficult decisions and keeping up with the many needs of your loved one (medication, hygiene, therapy, meals, doctor visits, etc.) can be stressful, with the potential to lead to anxiety. Family drama and resentment for the lack of help by other relatives, among other issues, can also contribute to stress and anxiety.
  • Fatigue: Being available around the clock to care for a loved one often means waking up in the middle of the night to meet different needs. One night, it might be to help them to the bathroom. Another night, it might be for an emergency trip to the hospital. After so many sleepless nights with so many daily responsibilities, many of which can be strenuous, fatigue can easily set in.

While many caregivers endure these factors without the need to rely on any person or substance (medication, etc.) to cope, others do have the need, but both scenarios can be perfectly healthy. Caregivers and individuals who aren’t caregivers are prescribed drugs for depression, anxiety and pain every day, and thousands of them take these medications safely and as prescribed. But just as with any other prescription situation, the chances of substance abuse are higher for individuals with a drug prescription than for those without one.

Consequences of Caregiver Substance Abuse

Constantly bearing the emotional and physical strain of caregiving drives many people to use drugs or alcohol to cope. But this behavior can quickly get out of hand, having detrimental repercussions for both the caregiver and the loved one in need of aid.   

When a caregiver develops a substance use disorder, they risk:

  • An inability to care for themselves: Most caregivers find themselves sacrificing the quality of their own well-being (and in some cases, sense of identity) to meet the needs of their loved one. Managing one’s own health while preserving that of another can be a delicate balancing act, and more often than not, caregivers end up neglecting their own mental and physical health. Drugs and alcohol can provide a temporary escape from anxiety and stress, but they make it even harder to take care of yourself and often worsen mental health struggles. When this happens, a caregiver’s overall well-being suffers, and they may not be able to provide the same level of care.
  • An inability to care for their loved one: Drug use doesn’t just wreak havoc on the caregiver’s body and mind. If a caregiver is intoxicated, hungover or high, they directly endanger the safety of the person they care for. When under the influence, a caregiver could accidentally give their loved one the wrong dosage of their medication, not hear their cry for help if they slip and fall and even forget their mealtimes — or worse. Recent studies also show that if a caregiver is inebriated, they’re much more likely to verbally or physically abuse a loved one.
  • Income or job loss: Overindulging in drugs or alcohol is a destructive habit in every way, including financially. Regardless of the substance used, caregivers will most likely be spending more of their paycheck on drugs or alcohol. Additionally, missing days of work due to being hungover can mean lost income. But by far the worst way a substance use disorder can impact income is that it can cause a caregiver to lose their job entirely. Ultimately, a caregiver runs the risk of being dismissed from their duties if their ability to care for others is too inhibited by substance abuse.   

Being a caregiver comes with many sacrifices and huge responsibilities. Drug and alcohol use only temporarily relieves this strain and often makes caregiving much more difficult. If you’re a caregiver using substances to cope, your substance use will only cause unnecessary disarray in your own life, and directly endanger the health and safety of the person you’re caring for. But hope and help are real, and rehab care just might be the right avenue for you.

Treatment for Caregivers With Substance Abuse

If you’re a caregiver, it can be difficult to accept that you need help. This role reversal can be a difficult transition for those who are accustomed to caring for others. But by accepting and receiving assistance, you can improve your ability to help others and your life overall.

Signs That a Caregiver Needs Help With Substances

If you’ve experienced any of the following signs or symptoms, or you notice inconsistencies or changes in behavior in a caregiver you know, it may be time to seek help. The following signs could indicate a substance use disorder:

  • Client or loved one’s medications go missing
  • Collecting and filling excess prescriptions for clients or family members
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and activities that once brought joy
  • Hiding pill bottles or taking other people’s medications home “for safekeeping”
  • Being overly protective or secretive about medications
  • An excess in pill bottles or alcohol containers
  • Physical changes including red or glassy eyes, runny nose and constant sniffling
  • Poor personal hygiene

There are many treatment options for caregivers who may be struggling with substance abuse or addiction. These options range from medical detox and inpatient programs that allow a person to focus on healing in a controlled setting, to outpatient treatment where a person attends sessions at select times during the day while living at home, in sober living housing, or in a care facility. There are several other levels of care that vary in time and intensity, but the main focus should always be on healing the individual through personalized treatment.

Inpatient Care for Substance Abuse

For many, inpatient care can be the life-changing shift needed to start a recovery journey. Inpatient or residential programs typically take place at a rehab facility where clients stay for several weeks. This could include intensive inpatient, inpatient and partial hospitalization care. Each level of treatment involves varying amounts of time spent with physicians, therapists and groups. Many programs, like those offered at The Recovery Village, use comprehensive and holistic treatment including yoga and art therapy. Using a well-rounded approach, these centers are able to help clients build a new life on a foundation of sobriety.

Outpatient Care for Substance Abuse

Outpatient care carves out a structure for clients to explore their struggles with substance use while affording the flexibility to put their new skills to the test. Undergone both as a stand-alone program and as part of a full continuum of treatment, clients in outpatient care take part in on-site therapy a few days a week and live in a safe home environment or sober living community. In centers like The Recovery Village, case managers work closely with each client to formulate a comprehensive aftercare plan that helps them carry the habits learned in treatment into daily life.

Self-Care Helps You Become a Better Caregiver

Helping others is a noble and challenging calling. Whether you’re taking care of clients in their own homes, working with people at a hospital or other facility, or caring for a family member or friend, it can be difficult to juggle the demands of everyday life with caregiving.

If you’re struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, or mental health concerns like depression while caring for others, there are many resources that can help. By reaching out, you can better serve those you care for. Before you can be a force for good for others, you must first develop a loving and caring relationship with your own mind and body. You can ensure that you are properly administering care to others by ensuring that your own needs are met. While under the influence of substances or during a mental health crisis, it is easy to make mistakes with medication dosages, time tracking, and other essential functions of caregiving. Understanding that you can and should be cared for can make a world of difference in your life and in the lives of those you love.

The Recovery Village offers comprehensive treatment for those struggling with substance abuse and co-occurring mental health concerns. By treating the whole person and laying the groundwork for a life-long recovery, clients can learn how to live their lives free from the confines of substances. If you or someone you know is ready for treatment, call today to learn more about how The Recovery Village cares for others.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.