Helping Someone You Love With Addiction
When someone you love has an addiction, it can be heartbreaking and distressing to witness their life spiraling out of control. You may feel completely powerless to intervene. Addiction can take over someone’s life to the point where they may seem like a different person than they used to be, yet you may be unsure of how to help someone you love, especially if you know they have a problem and they don’t yet want to admit it.
It’s not always easy to know how to help someone who doesn’t want help, but being there for someone you love is critical to help them take back control of their life and start the path to recovery. This article will detail what to say to someone struggling with addiction, how to confront family members on drugs, how to encourage your loved one to seek treatment, and how to support someone in recovery.
Help Yourself First
You’re probably familiar with the instructions provided during the safety briefing before an airplane fligh. During a problem on the flight, it’s important to ensure that you have your oxygen mask secured before helping someone else with theirs. The idea that you cannot help someone else before first taking care of yourself applies equally when it comes to addiction. In short, you may be so focused on helping your loved one that you completely neglect your own needs. This ultimately creates excessive stress and mental and physical strain, which, in the end, is detrimental to both you and your loved one. If you can’t think clearly because you feel so overwhelmed or you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re not serving anyone.
Helping people with addiction is not easy but learning about addiction and treatment options and asking for help when you need it will allow you to provide the best help possible to your loved one. Start by reading about how to recognize the signs and symptoms of addiction in a loved one on the National Institute on Drug Abuse website.1
Create a Safe Space for Your Loved One
Your loved one probably knows that you want the best for them. Addiction can cloud someone’s judgment and negatively impact their ability to listen. You must create a safe space that expands on the trust your loved one already has in you. By creating a trusting environment and approaching your loved one with empathy, you set the stage so they are more able and willing to hear your message.
Building trust is more than just creating a safe environment or safe haven, however. It’s important not to confuse creating a safe space with enabling, as enabling only serves to fortify your loved one’s addiction. Enabling includes behaviors such as making excuses for your loved one’s behavior, giving them money, and drinking or using drugs with them.2 You may have heard that someone needs to be left alone to hit rock bottom before they will be willing to seek help. In their book, “When Your Partner Has an Addiction: How Compassion Can Transform Your Relationship (and Heal You Both in the Process),” recovery expert Christopher Kennedy Lawford and psychotherapist Beverly Engel, MFT, explain that the opposite is often true: compassion is one of the most important tools to help your loved one begin to heal from addiction.3
Strengthening your relationship with love, compassion, and trust is an important step before confronting your loved one. Be honest and respectful at all times and keep in mind that your loved one is struggling with a serious disease. You might reassure them periodically, letting them know that you’re concerned about them, that you love them, and that you want them to be happy and healthy.
Create an Action Plan
Having a general plan in place is important before talking to your loved one about getting help. While educating yourself about addiction and treatment options can help you understand more of what your loved one is going through and the ways that treatment can help, you may still have questions or concerns, or just things that you’re not sure about. If you’re not sure of how to convince someone to stop using drugs, know that you don’t have to figure everything out on your own. At American Addiction Centers, we operate a free and confidential helpline to help people find the best treatment option for their needs. Our Admissions Navigators are compassionate and understanding individuals who often have first-hand experience with addiction themselves. By talking to an Admissions Navigator, you will learn more about the kind of treatment your loved one may need, where they can go to treatment, and what needs to be done to make it happen.
Ask Your Loved One to Get Help
The last step is to talk to your loved one about their addiction and about the need to get help. You’ll want to let them know how you feel about how their addiction and how it impacts you personally. Remember that communicating from a place of love will help them be more open to your feelings and suggestions, whereas coming across in an accusing or blaming manner will only shut them down. Don’t feel like you have to be perfect or completely prepared; just focus on the message, stick to facts, and emphasize your love and concern.
- Let them know exactly what you’ve observed and how those facts affect you, such as, “I’ve noticed that you’re drinking a 6-pack every evening, and you seem to be more angry/distant/unhappy/depressed lately.” Or, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been smoking weed a lot more than usual and you don’t seem like yourself. I feel like it’s harming our relationship.”
- Focus on the specific negative ways that their substance use is affecting their life and well-being, and try not to generalize. For example, you might say, “Yesterday when you came home drunk, you punched the wall and bruised your hand,” instead of, “All you do is drink and act like a crazy person,” then try to help them see the consequences of their substance use. You could say, “I’m concerned that things will get worse and you might seriously injure yourself or someone else if this continues.” If there are examples of the way your loved one’s addiction has specifically affected their mental or physical health, you can include that as well. You might say something in a matter-of-fact way, such as, “I’m concerned that your drinking is affecting your blood pressure/liver/psychological state/etc.”
- Ask them if they have considered entering rehab and tell them you’d like them to think about treatment. If they are hesitant or unwilling to discuss it, tell them that you’d at least like them to consider getting a professional assessment from their doctor. Remember that you are asking your loved one for something, so there has to be a level of humility associated with that to be successful. Don’t make demands or set ultimatums.
- Avoid passive-aggressive behavior or trying to manipulate your loved one into seeking treatment. Deep down, you may feel angry that your loved one has an addiction and you may have thus far developed unhealthy coping behaviors in an attempt to control or guilt them into changing. It’s important to let care, patience, empathy, respect and honesty guide the conversation when you confront your loved one.
- Understand that they may be in denial or unwilling to admit that they have a problem. They may accuse you of overreacting, insist that they don’t have a problem, or tell you that they don’t want to change. Continue to show empathy and support and try to avoid getting drawn into a debate. Let them talk and be willing to listen to their side of things without judgment or criticism.
- Realize that, despite your best efforts, they may not be open to or ready to hear what you’re saying at this time, no matter how loving or caring you might be. That’s OK, and you can always come back to the topic later. Be patient and don’t push them if they don’t immediately agree to go to treatment; planting the seed in their mind can be enough.
Still Have Questions?
Education can help you understand the rehab process, which often begins with detox, a process that helps your loved one stop using the substance, keeps them as safe and comfortable as possible as the substance is cleared from their body, and provides monitoring, support, and care geared toward your loved one’s specific needs. American Addiction Centers can provide a safe experience for detox and also help them enter an appropriate treatment facility once detox is complete.
If you still have questions, you should know that at American Addiction Centers, our mission is to help people access treatment. That starts with your first phone call. If you have questions, call our confidential helpline. It’s free and available 24/7. You’ll speak with one of our Admissions Navigators, who will provide all the information you need to help that special person in your life that is hurting.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Step by step guides to finding treatment for drug use disorders: How do I know if my adult friend or loved one has a substance use problem?
- University of Pennsylvania Health System. (2003). Enabling behaviors.
- Lawford, C. & Engel, B. (2016). When your partner has an addiction: How compassion can transform your relationship (and heal you both in the process). Dallas, TX: BenBella Books