How to Help Someone with an Addiction
You may be unsure of how to truly help someone with an addiction. Loving someone with an addiction is incredibly scary, overwhelming, and even draining.
From navigating difficult conversations with your loved one to getting them into treatment, helping can be a complex dance.
Read on to discover how to help someone with an addiction to seek help. Plus, check out some tips for what not to do along the way.
How to know your loved one needs help
If you believe your loved one is struggling with an addiction, there are many signs to look out for.
According to the American Psychological Association's DSM-5, below are a list of the 11 criteria that a person is struggling with substance use disorder:
- The substance is taken in larger amounts or over longer periods than was intended.
- There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful effort to cut down or control substance use.
- A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain substances, use substances, or recover from its effects.
- Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use a substance.
- Recurrent use of the substance is resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, home, or school.
- Continued use of substance despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of the substance.
- Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of substance use.
- Recurrent substance use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
- Substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance.
10. Tolerance, is defined by either of the following:
- A need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or desired effect.
- A markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance.
11. Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
(Withdrawal does not apply for every substance.)
- The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for that substance (see additional criteria in DSM-5).
- The substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.
The more criteria your loved one identifies with, the more severe their condition.
Treatment is the goal
The nature of substance use extends beyond the physical act of using and transcends the mind and spirit as well. Because of this, it's important that your loved one gets into a comprehensive treatment programme to get help.
When your loved one is in the throes of addiction, the neural pathways of their brain have been altered by their ongoing substance use. Their priority becomes the drug. Therefore, it will likely be difficult for them to decide if they want to go to treatment.
It’s true that you cannot force someone to go into treatment. A person needs to be open and willing to explore this themselves to experience true healing. Your loved one may feel stigmatised for needing to go to treatment. Additionally, the act of going into treatment can feel incredibly overwhelming and scary.
However, there are some things you can do in order to help someone with addiction get into treatment and begin the healing process.
A step-by-step guide for helping your loved one seek help
Ultimately, the decision to enter treatment is up to your loved one. However, talking with them and expressing your concerns without antagonising them can prompt them to consider entering treatment.
There are ways to talk to your loved one that will help them feel safe enough to listen to what you're saying and not be on the defensive. There are also ways to talk to your loved one that will cause them to shut down and not listen to what you're saying.
How to have difficult conversations with an addicted loved one:
Remember that substance use is not a moral failure.
Your loved one is not a bad person, and they are not a bad person for using illicit substances. Addiction is a disease of the mind, body, and spirit. It has the ability to hijack your loved one's thought processes, dismantling their impulse control and their decision-making skills. The physical dependence that forms causes your loved one to seek out substances just to function.
When trying to help someone with an addiction, remember that they are struggling in multiple areas and that their use is not indicative of their morals as human beings.
Remember that substance use is often a coping mechanism for pain or trauma.
We all have coping mechanisms, whether it’s venting to our friends, creating art, going to the gym, or overworking ourselves. Coping mechanisms manifest in many different ways. Substance use is just another way, granted, it is an incredibly destructive way.
When talking to your loved one, remember that their use initially served as a coping mechanism for them to either numb their pain or forget their trauma. Difficult emotions are hard for many people to face, and your loved one may have turned to substances, without even realising it, as a way of coping with difficult emotions.
Create a safe and trusting space
When talking to your loved one about their substance use, how you see it impacting them, or how it has impacted you, it is important to create an environment of trust. If your loved one feels that you do not trust them or that they cannot trust you, they will keep their walls up. This will inhibit them from expressing their true thoughts and feelings, and will prevent them from being able to receive your thoughts and feelings. Work on building a space of trust with your loved one if you want to establish a dialogue that can help them get into treatment.
Use “I” statements
Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. “You” statements can come off as being accusatory and cause your loved one to become defensive and shut down. “I” statements place the focus back on you and your feelings. For instance, instead of saying “You’re out at all hours of the night doing God knows what,” you can try saying “I feel nervous and worried when I don’t know where you are.” This can help your loved one reflect on how their behaviours are impacting you, rather than causing your loved one to feel accused.
When your loved one begins to express to you their thoughts and feelings, offer them empathy. Expressing empathy is a great way to help someone with an addiction feel less judged or isolated. Validate what they're saying, even if you can't fully understand their reality. Your loved one's experiences, thoughts, and feelings are true to them. Invalidating their emotions will only put more space between you and will cause them to feel unsafe expressing themselves.
Express empathy as often as you can when trying to help someone with an addiction. By doing so, your loved one will know that you want to learn more and that you care about how they truly feel.
Anticipate being blamed
Anticipate that your loved one may blame you at some point or another for their substance use. They may also say something hurtful to you in order to get you to back off. This will likely come from a place of defensiveness, and not feeling safe to express their truth. If they do blame you, try not to get defensive in the conversation. Your purpose is to create a safe, open space for dialogue. Hear what they have to say, and try to express empathy for how they're feeling.
Remain hopeful that your loved one can and will get better, and that they can find themselves and experience joy again. If your loved one is struggling with addiction, they are likely in an incredibly difficult place both mentally and spiritually. Offering them hope while having non-judgmental, compassionate, loving conversations may be the catalyst towards getting them to consider finally going to treatment.
How to help someone with an addiction if they enter treatment
If your loved one enters treatment, you can continue to support them by respecting their privacy about what goes on in their therapy or group sessions. Addiction is an incredibly personal struggle, and if your loved one is opening up in their therapy sessions, trust that it is beneficial for them and allow them to come to you and speak to you about things in their own time and when they feel safe.
Remain patient with your loved one while they're in treatment, especially in the early days, weeks, and months. Early recovery is incredibly difficult, not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually. It can be of great help to your loved one if they have your support during this difficult, complicated time.
Most importantly, support your loved one by always remembering and understanding that healing is not linear. The journey of recovery is not a straight line and comes with many twists, turns, and obstacles. Your loved one will learn more about themselves than they ever have, they will face difficult emotions that they forgot existed, and they will have to navigate this all without the one coping mechanism they have been relying on.
Your loved one may also relapse, and that's okay. It happens to many people, and many professionals maintain that relapse is part of the recovery process.
How to help someone with an addiction if they refuse to engage in treatment
If your loved one refuses to enter into treatment, or struggles to admit that they have a problem, it may be time to hold an intervention.
An intervention is a meeting that happens between your loved one, their close friends, family, and loved ones who care about them, and an addiction interventionist.
During an intervention, loved ones will often read letters expressing to the person struggling with addiction how they feel, and how deeply they want their loved one to get help.
The addiction interventionist is able to guide the conversation and to support all members in the room, with the final goal being to get the loved one to agree to go to rehab.
Upon agreeing, the loved one will be transported to the treatment facility right after the intervention.
It's never too early, or too late, to consider holding an intervention for your loved one with the help of a professional.
What not to do to help someone with an addiction
Now that you know a few concepts to keep in mind when talking to your loved one, there are also some things not to do when engaging in conversation with them.
When talking to your loved one, make sure they feel heard. Try not to attack or accuse them. Steer clear of berating them. Your loved one is likely experiencing deep feelings of shame and guilt, and accusing them will only make them feel worse.
Additionally, you can express to them how their substance use has impacted your life without demeaning them. Be sure not to be judgmental towards your loved one, and don’t use labelling words such as “drug addict.”
Also, be mindful of enabling behaviours you may be potentially engaging in. Many people engage in enabling behaviours with their loved one without even realising it.
Below are some enabling behaviours to avoid:
- Picking up your loved one’s slack for responsibilities they’ve been unable to keep up due to their substance use
- Covering for your loved one if they’re late/absent to work or school
- Paying off debts for your loved one or offering them financial assistance
- Providing basic needs for your loved one such as shelter or food
- Cleaning up after your loved one
- Not taking care of yourself in order to prioritise your loved one’s needs
- Avoiding that your loved one has a problem
- Making excuses for your loved one’s behaviour
Substance use affects not only your loved one, but creates a ripple outward impacting everyone around them, including you. This is why it's so important to be mindful of enabling behaviours and to make sure you have healthy boundaries in place
Taking care of you
Loving someone with an addiction is taxing on many different levels. The emotional rollercoaster alone can feel impossible to bare, but you don't need to go through this experience alone.
Loving someone with an addiction presents its own unique set of experiences, emotions, challenges, and triumphs. Joining a 12-step meeting such as Al-anon can help you meet other people who are going through the exact same thing you're going through. Connecting to others will help give you hope that both you and your loved one can truly get through this.
Additionally, it may be beneficial for you to attend therapy or counselling in order to process what you're going through and to maintain your healthy boundaries. Taking care of your own mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being is crucial not only for you, but also for your loved one. You want to be the best version of yourself in order to be able to truly help them.
A final word on helping someone with an addiction
If your loved one is ready for treatment, there are many services they can engage with to start their healing journey.
They can explore attending NA, AA, SMART Recovery, or many other support groups. Nowadays, groups are offered both in-person and online. Recoverlution also offers access to such meetings within our platform.
They can choose to attend an inpatient or outpatient rehab programme, or start off with a medical detox. They can also start therapy with a mental health professional who specialises in substance use disorders.
Additionally, our platform offers a wealth of resources and support for those in all stages of recovery. From online meetings to an extensive wellness hub, Recoverlution can provide your loved one with the tools and support they need as they embark on their healing journey.
Author - Thurga
18 Addiction Support Groups for Families
- Loving an Addict or Alcoholic: How to Help Someone With Addiction https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/loving-an-addict
- Alcohol support https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-advice/alcohol-support/
- Al anon uk for families and friends of alcoholics https://www.al-anonuk.org.uk