Addiction is one of the toughest problems a family can face. Learning that a loved one is battling an addiction to drugs or alcohol can be shocking and sad, and can sometimes cause panic. It’s natural for family members to feel hopeless at times, even frightened or overwhelmed. To “take care of yourself”, is the best advice you can give someone who has a loved one dealing with an addiction. We’ll cover this topic thoroughly, first, however, let’s review the signs of an addiction.
RECOGNIZING A PROBLEM
To say that these are uncertain times is an understatement. Not only are we facing constant economic concerns and high levels of unemployment, but we’re also in the middle of a global pandemic. Consuming drugs and alcohol to cope with such stress is common, that doesn’t, however, make it right. Some common signs that your loved one has a problem include:
- Neglecting responsibility at home, work or school.
- Binging or consuming more than intended.
- Lying about consumption.
- Not remembering what they said or did while intoxicated.
- Continuing to consume, even after loved ones have expressed concern.
HOW TO TALK TO A PERSON WITH AN ADDICTION ABOUT THEIR PROBLEM
Initiating a conversation about someone’s addiction is not easy. You need to prepare yourself for an array of possible reactions from anger to denial. Don’t use their reaction though, as a reason to avoid the discussion; their use of substances is not likely to get better on its own.
Honesty is important when expressing your concerns, but you need to go into the conversation with a firm understanding that you cannot force someone to quit their addiction. As difficult as it is to watch, in the end - the choice to stop consuming is up to them.
While you may feel emotional during this, attempting to appeal to the emotions of your loved one is often fleeting. Thinking: “if I yell enough / cry enough / threaten enough, then the afflicted individual will stop. “What did I do wrong” is a question most supporting family members eventually ask themselves, as well. These thoughts and exclamations don’t end the addiction, instead, your loved one will usually make false promises to satisfy your needs. This has, for many, become an endless cycle of hope, disappointment, and frustration.
Please don’t be hard on yourself though, it’s a bitter lesson that almost everyone in your position has to learn. That lesson is - there is little anyone can do to disrupt the addiction process, other than the person with the addiction. You can however support and comfort the afflicted individual, our goal in this article is to help you with this, as well as helping yourself during this time.
TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF
Every mental health professional will advise you - you have to take care of yourself, first. Think of the preflight instructions you hear on an airplane before takeoff; passengers are told to put on their own oxygen mask before helping anyone else - even your child.
This sentiment that everyone must care for themselves first, is an important step to coping with another person’s addiction. Making yourself sick over their addiction is not going to inspire them to stop, just as we learned earlier that crying or yelling isn’t going to help either. It’s also the reason why support groups for family members have become so popular. The meetings are usually free and are full of friends and family of those with substance problems. There are two key messages the groups try to instill in their members:
- The addiction is not your fault, therefore self-blame should stop.
- You do not have control over the addiction process and life does become a bit more peaceful once you accept that.
Many family members of those with problems using substances find solace through psychotherapy as well. The therapist is there to help you work through the anger, guilt, confusion and depression that most loved ones experience.
Harvard Medical School published a special report “Overcoming Addiction: Paths Toward Recovery”, which is a manual intended for the public. It helps explain why this isn’t your fault and offers a few reminders for loved ones of those with addiction, including:
- Speak up: Share your concerns about your loved one’s addiction in a factual but caring way.
- Don’t make excuses: This just makes it easier for your loved one to escape the consequences of their addiction.
- Be safe: There have been many unfortunate incidents where family members have put themselves in a dangerous situation, trying to help. Always have a friend you can call for assistance.
- Take care of yourself: Connect with people and resources that can support you. It’s easy to forget that you are not alone. Help is available in your community.
- Don’t blame yourself: Remember that you are not in control of, or responsible for this problem.
- Step back: It can be easy to get caught up arguing, accusing, lecturing, even threatening someone with a substance problem. It’s best to remain neutral.
With enough support from medical doctors, therapists, friends and family - a person may find their way through the addiction. However, the possibility of relapse can feel overwhelming, creating stress for people who have just finished a rehabilitation program.
In recent years, society has begun to understand addiction as a disease. Looking at it this way, you may consider that there are times when symptoms will worsen. Similar to asthma or diabetes, a course of treatment will work for a while, but then symptoms often progress. This doesn’t mean you quit, instead - you return to the doctor for a new treatment plan. Treating addiction as a disease means managing relapse in the same way. You work hard to avoid it, but understand if it happens, you start a new treatment. It’s helpful to remember that relapse is only detrimental when they refuse to seek more help.
When considering rehabilitation programs, discussing how the organization handles relapse is a good idea. A successful method that many programs use is “sponsorship”; pairing a newly recovered substance user with a successful graduate from the program. Sponsors understand the recovery process and serve as an excellent source of support for your loved one.
You can also help prevent relapse by eliminating temptation for the substance user, such as removing alcohol from the home. Trying new activities to enjoy together is often beneficial as well as new hobbies they can pursue on their own. It’s necessary for the person overcoming addiction to alter their behaviours - loved ones should try to welcome and support this change. However, just as we mentioned earlier, the only person you can change is yourself, it’s important to remember that during all stages of recovery.
THE DOs AND DON’Ts OF RECOVERY
- Do educate yourself on addiction. If you’ve never experienced this situation directly before, you’re likely to have been misinformed on what addiction is, and how to recover. The more informed you are, the better you will be able to help them.
- Don’t look down on them. Being upset is understandable, but it’s important to remember that addiction is a disease, this is not something they chose for themselves. When it comes to addiction, there are plenty of stigmas; your loved one needs support from you, not judgement.
- Do address the issue. Understanding that the problem will not go away on its own is important. This is a conversation you need to have sooner, rather than later.
- Don’t ignore the problem. No one expects addiction to happen to someone they know, when it does it can be hard to accept. Ignoring the signs of addiction we discussed earlier or making excuses will only escalate their addiction. If you find yourself continuously using phrases like “it’s not that bad” or “this is just a phase”, you’re in as much denial as the substance user. Keep in mind addiction is progressive, the more they use substances, the worse it will be.
- Do research treatments. Your loved one might not be open to your help yet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be prepared. Start by reaching out to different treatment centers, explore your options to help find the best program. The more informed you are, the better prepared you’ll be when they are ready.
- Don’t try forcing them to quit. Tough love rarely works with substance users. Ultimatums or using force to get them to join a program, is the best way to ensure the program doesn’t work. One thing addiction research has shown us, is a person will not get sober unless they want to.
- Do practice self-care. We understand that your own well being is the last thing on your mind right now, but it should be your top priority. Your loved one’s addiction will likely take a toll on you; exercise, eat healthy, and enjoy outside activities and hobbies away from the person using substances. The harsh truth is you can’t help them until you help yourself.
- Don’t enable them. It’s difficult to watch a loved one’s life unravel, but you need to keep a close eye on your own behaviour; it’s a fine line between helping and enabling. More often than not, loved ones think they are helping when they: pay their bills, give them money, lie for them or make excuses for their behaviour. Remember, the only person you can control or change is yourself, which is especially important when treading the line between support and enablement.
- Do set boundaries. Addiction is chaos, setting lines that cannot be crossed is important to your mental health, your safety and their recovery. There should be consequences for when your loved one does cross the line, otherwise, they will have no reason to change.
- Don’t give up. It’s a frustrating process, especially when they refuse help or suffer a relapse, but giving up on them should not be an option. A person with a drug addiction needs to know that you are there for them, they’re more likely to give up on themselves when everybody else already has.
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ConnexOntario provides contact information for mental health and addictions services. We tailor our support to meet each caller's needs. Our professionals listen, offer support and provide strategies to help meet your goals. We can also provide information to help educate yourself on addictions including drugs, gambling, alcohol or other mental health problems.
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