Substance abuse affects everyone involved, not just the addict.
The addict’s personality has changed. They tend to lie and ask for money and care little about quality time with those who care about them. They may do and say things that upset others and leave the family ashamed or angry. Blood relationships and friendships are strained and drained. Often bridges are broken.
On top of this, the drug abuser might not be open to treatment. For all the damage they do, they may not even recognize they’re sick. Unfortunately treatment rarely works if the addict doesn’t want it. Family members and close friends are left feeling angry, hopeless, and helpless.
If you care about someone with a substance abuse problem, here are some ideas.
How to help your friend or loved one
Avoid name calling and fault-finding. You’ll be angry or hurt or confused at times, but try not to accuse or judge. Avoid attacking the substance abuser verbally or physically, as it will likely just push them further into their addiction.
Offer your advice carefully. Make your recommendations more powerful by limiting how often you give them. The less said, the more that’s heard.
Set boundaries. Boundaries are meant to help you protect yourself, do what is best for the addict (even though boundaries may be opposite to what they want), and improve the health of the relationship. Do not use boundaries to punish or shame. Examples of boundaries might include directing the person not to use drugs in the house, checking urine toxicology tests regularly as a requirement to live at home, or not talking about drinking with a sober friend.
Don’t help them use drugs. Don’t enable their addiction. This means don’t give them large sums of money, let them talk obsessively about the joys of using, make excuses for them, bail them out of jail repeatedly, or pay for their mistakes. Don’t shield the addict from their addiction. People are more likely to change if they aren’t rescued from the negative consequences of their actions.
Help them get and stay off drugs. Offer rides to doctor’s appointments, support groups, twelve-step programs, and rehabilitation. If they’re trying to not use drugs, help them avoid places and people that could trigger them to relapse. Help them find things to take their mind off of drugs. Talk to them about what they’re doing to stay clean. Congratulate them for each new day sober.
Help them with basic needs. If you want to provide financial support, buy the goods and services the addict needs instead of giving them money. Gift cards for small amounts at the local supermarket might be an option, but if motivated the addict can still trade these for drugs. If affordable and reasonable and within your control, help them find a place to live and show them how to look for a job. Housing might be a place in your home, a week’s paid hotel, or a list of shelters. Whatever you do, don’t give them lump sums of cash they can use to buy alcohol or drugs.
Encourage your loved one to seek professional help for mental and physical problems. It’s hard to beat something as big as an addiction when you’re struggling with depression, unstable diabetes, chronic pain, and other problems. Encourage your loved one to get treatment and take their medications.
If they’re actively using, explore all options. Encourage your loved one to pursue treatment. You can always make steps to discover what’s available in your community or state and give the information to your loved one when they’re ready. Treatment can include inpatient detoxification, short and long term residential rehabilitation, substance abuse day hospitals, the Salvation Army, wilderness programs, substance abuse and mental health clinics, psychotherapy, Methadone and Suboxone maintenance treatment (for opiate use disorders), twelve-step programs, or a visit to the emergency room. Remember, if your loved one has been using for a while, it’s almost impossible to become sober and clean without professional help.
Recognize and acknowledge the potential the addict has within them. Remind them of their past achievements and that it’s never too late to start over. Paint a positive image of the future.
Do everything in small steps. Focus your energies on helping your loved one stay clean before insisting they get higher-paying job, go back to graduate school, or start saving to buy a house. Adjust your expectations according to “where they’re at” and applaud all efforts and achievements.
Things You Can Do For Yourself
Educate yourself about addiction. Read everything you can about substance abuse and alcoholism, and familiarize yourself with treatment resources in your community and state.
Attend Al–Anon and co-dependency meetings. These are support groups for families and friends of people with addiction. This is a good place to learn about additional resources.
Find time to do things that have nothing to do with addiction. Having a family member or close friend who is an addict is exhausting. Make sure to have a separate life that takes care of you. This might include “me-time,” a good book, hobbies, classes, time with friends, holidays overseas, and keeping up with work.
Don’t take the addict’s relapse personally. It’s part of their disease, not a statement or insult meant to hurt family and friends.
Don’t put more work into overcoming the addiction than the addict. It happens to all of us. A parent will spend hours each day trying to help their adult child get sober and clean — having long talks, monitoring their every behavior, and calling nine rehabs looking for openings — when the addict doesn’t want to stop using. Halt! Look at what your loved one is doing (and not doing) and match their efforts – and nothing more. Don’t spin your wheels. An alternative approach is to not do things for the addict, but instead show them how to do these things themselves.
Emotions can be overwhelming. You’ll have a mix of emotions, many negative. This is normal. Consider talking to a friend or someone you trust to blow off some steam, but don’t take it out on the addict. Write a scathing letter but don’t send it off. Keep a journal. If things are bad, talk to your primary care doctor about help for stress, insomnia, depression, or anxiety. Consider touching bases with a psychotherapist if you feel buried under the stress.