Watching a loved one struggle with a substance dependence disorder is one of the most difficult things you can do. At the same time, nearly 20% of Americans eventually have to watch family members struggle with substance abuse, as over 30 million Americans struggle with addiction. With statistics showing that only 19% of those ever go on to get professional help, most of us simply keep watching our loved ones tear themselves apart.
While you cannot force your loved one into recovery, you cannot make them want help, and you cannot make them get clean and sober, you can try to get through to them.
Understanding their Mindset
No one chooses to be an addict. Instead, addiction happens through a series of choices, which are linked to personality, behavior, and vulnerabilities. Ultimately, addiction is linked to long-term exposure to substances, the buildup of tolerance, and eventual physical dependence. Understanding this process might help you to better understand the situation your loved one is in and therefore to react to them in ways that are more likely to elicit a positive response.
Vulnerabilities – People become more vulnerable to substance abuse through a range of factors. These might include stress, trauma, childhood trauma, genetics, poverty, or even upbringing. Substance abuse often links to self-medication, where individuals attempt to make themselves feel better with a substance to either forget or move past problems ranging from loneliness and depression to stress to actual physical pain. This means that individuals with mental health disorders are especially vulnerable.
Tolerance – Physical tolerance happens when the body adjusts to specific levels of a substance in the body. Drugs or alcohol no longer work at the same dose, forcing the individual to take more and more to achieve the same effect or even an effect at all.
Dependence – The body becomes physically dependent on a substance and the user cannot stop without provoking sometimes severe withdrawal symptoms. This can force some individuals to continue substance use even when they know they should quit, to maintain their ability to function.
Addiction – Addiction develops through long-term exposure to a substance. Changes in the brain result in altered reward circuitry, emotional blunting, and often, focus on the substance. Addicts often isolate themselves, forcing them to get more and more of anything positive from the substance, worsening the problems that pushed them to substance use in the first place.
While the path to addiction is different for many people, addiction often stems from a complex interplay of behavior, psychological problems, environment, and sometimes genetics.
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Avoid Tough Love if Possible
Tough love, or the concept of throwing someone out and ignoring them as a means of forcing them to hit rock bottom and seek help, is a common but largely ineffectual treatment approach. Forcing your loved one into a largely negative situation will most likely push them into a situation where they are more likely to use, and more likely to do in unsafe conditions.
While it is important that you set boundaries, you can typically do so without resorting to tough love. Here, it’s important to set limits, decide what you are and are not comfortable with, and create rules that you will follow up on if they are broken. For example, you don’t want to give your loved one money or otherwise contribute to their continued ability to hurt themselves. However, you might be okay with them sleeping on your couch, you might be okay ensuring they have Naloxone to stop an overdose, and you might be okay talking to them and treating them like you love them even though you know they are high. It’s important to decide for yourself what you can handle, which is quite often a balance between “I love you” and “this thing you are doing is hurting you”. As a general rule, you should not offer money, pay bills, do chores or tasks for, lie for, or otherwise purchase substances for your loved one.
However, it is also true that addicts are extremely manipulative. They can tug at your heartstrings like no one esle can, because they know you so well and realize there is a strong emotional bond. One thing almost every loved one of an addict should do is check out Al-Anon or Alateen. These groups offer support for people who are worried about someone with a drinking or drug addiction problem. Loved ones of an addict have the opportunity to learn from others who have faced similar problems.
Show You Care About Them
It’s easy to give our loved ones the impression that we care more about substance use than we care about them. Substance abuse comes with a significant amount of social stigma and it can be shocking to learn that someone you care about has resorted to it. At the same time, your loved one is likely isolating themselves through a combination of drug abuse changing their brain and fear of being stigmatized. Your constantly being upset about substance abuse can also result in every interaction you have with your loved one being a negative one. They will logically avoid you and convince themselves that you don’t care. It’s important that you work to change this.
Showing you care can be as simple as taking the time to have meaningful conversations. It also includes being careful about how you phrase things. For example, lying to the neighbors or going “What will people think” is almost always the wrong thing to say. Instead, be concerned about your loved one’s health, their wellbeing, how they’re going to get home. Simple acts of caring, “I’m worried about you”, and conversations that aren’t about substance abuse will remind your loved one that you do care.
Be There for Them
Your loved one needs you now more than ever. If you want to get through to them, it’s important that you be there for them. While money is off the table, you can offer emotional support, you can talk to them, you can make sure they have a meal, you can make sure they have Naloxone, and you can otherwise show that you do care about them through your actions.
What does that look like? It can be staying up with your loved one to talk about them and their life. It might be getting a blanket and tucking them in when they fall asleep drunk somewhere. And, it might be driving to pick them up when they ask for help. You shouldn’t overextend yourself, which does mean that you have to set boundaries and decide for yourself when it is too much, but you can try to be there and show that you do care about them, not just their substance abuse.
Ask them to Get Help
Your loved one might be aware that they need help. More likely, they are in a state of denial, where they’ve convinced themselves that they can stop anytime they want. Depending on your and their situation, asking them to get help might go easily or it might result in harsh words and even violence. You may have to stage an intervention with more of their friends and loved ones to help.
However, you should have a plan. Figure out where to take them to rehab, contact the facility in advance so that you can immediately take your loved one there, and figure out how you will pay for everything (most rehabilitation facilities accept insurance) before doing so. Then, when you tell your loved one that you want to help them into treatment so they can get their life back, you can immediately act if they say yes.
You can’t force anyone to accept help. However, you can actively participate in your loved one’s life, you can try to understand them, and you can consistently offer real help. While it won’t always work, showing that you care will help you to get through to your loved one.
If you or your loved-one is seeking help for substance addiction, call us at (714) 443-8218 and look into our recovery programs. Our Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Huntington Beach helps clients by providing them with addiction intervention services, detox, and residential addiction treatment.
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