Helping a friend or loved one struggling with drug or alcohol addiction can often be a long and heartbreaking journey. At times, it can be so overwhelming that ignoring the situation may seem like an easier solution. Sweeping the issue under the carpet can be more damaging to you, your family, and the person you’re concerned about. As painful as it may be, it’s important that you take the time to encourage your friend, family member or loved one to get the help they need at the earliest possible opportunity.
What’s The Difference Between Substance Abuse & Addiction?
Substance abuse is when the user or drinker uses their substance of choice free from physical and mental dependence.
Substance Addiction is when the user or drinker uses their substance of choice because they have become both physically and mentally addicted and dependant on their substance(s) to satisfy cravings and avoid withdrawal symptoms and a way to feel “normal”.
Understanding Drug & Alcohol Addiction/Abuse
People start using drugs and drinking alcohol for all different reasons, curiosity, to have a good time, because friends are doing it, to improve athletic performance, to numb emotional pain, to satisfy physical/mental dependence and alleviate withdrawal symptoms and more. Drug or alcohol use doesn’t automatically lead to a physical and mental addiction and it’s often hard to pinpoint a single moment, place or date where their drug or alcohol use goes from casual/recreational use for enjoyment to a full blown physical and mental dependence and addiction.
Often, drug abuse and addiction are less about the frequency in which a person uses or drinks and more about the reasons people turn to drugs or alcohol in the first place and the consequences of their use. For example, if drug use is causing problems in your life, such as losing a job or straining relationships with friends and family, you likely have a problem with drug abuse/addiction.
Not everyone who uses drugs becomes addicted. The likelihood that someone will become addicted to drugs or alcohol varies from person to person, their anatomy and physiology, any mental or physical medical conditions, their living and social situation and their financial and criminal situation among others.
Risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing a full blown addiction may include but not limited to the following:
- Family history of addiction.
- Abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences.
- Mental health conditions such as anxiety, bipolar and depression.
- Their method of administration (using) their drink or drug as injecting or smoking a drug may increase its potential to become addictive however taking them orally can still lead to becoming addicted.
- Using substances from a young age or for an extended period of time.
- The people they socialise with such as others who are already addicts or use or drink often (peer pressure).
- Being involved in gang, criminal or drug dealing activities.
Symptoms of Drug Abuse
There are many signs, both physical, mental and behavioural that indicate drug or alcohol use. Each drug or drink has its own unique manifestations and symptoms of abuse and addiction vary from drug to drug and type of drink. However, some general signs that your friend or loved one may be addicted to drugs or alcohol include:
- Sudden change in behavior.
- Mood swings.
- Withdrawal from family members, friends and cancelling social plans or gatherings made previously.
- Red, glassy, wide open or heavy tired eyes.
- Runny or stuffy nose.
- Problems at school or work.
- Lack of energy or motivation to do things that they would normally enjoy or to try new things.
- Becoming careless about personal grooming and hygiene.
- Loss of interest in hobbies, sports, and other favorite activities.
- Changes in sleeping pattern. They may sleep more often than usual or not be able to sleep at all.
- Sudden requests for money or a spike in how much money they spend.
- Marks, bruises, nose bleeds or coughs developing from their method of using or drinking their substances of choice.
How to Help Someone with A Drug Addiction
Helping a loved one dealing with drug or drink addiction isn’t easy, and there’s no magic formula that will get your loved one to stop using or drinking. However, here are some suggestions on how to help a loved one get treatment for their drug or alcohol addiction and become abstinent.
Educate Yourself About Addiction
You see what you know. Until you have knowledge about addiction and the symptoms of drug abuse/addiction, it’s easy to miss the signs that are right in front of you. Similar to tunnel vision as it’s easier to not accept the truth and carry on as “normal”.
Addiction is complex, and it’s okay if you don’t know everything right away. But taking the time to understand your loved one’s disease and how it affects them is incredibly beneficial to both you and your loved one. It also helps you be more aware of the signs that your loved one needs help.
Offer Your Support
Addicts don’t always understand how much their family and friends love them. Talk to your loved one about your concerns, and don’t wait for them to hit rock bottom to speak up. Let them know that you’re going to support them on their journey to recovery. If there is more than one person trying to help the person in question, try to work on a unified front so that everyone knows the boundaries, goals and plans in place so that you can best help that person and helps rule out the possibility of them playing one side off against the other and means that everyone can best help that person ongoing. They may not like it and may push back against that decision initially as they know that they can’t manipulate the situation to allow them to continue using and/or drinking.
Encourage Them to Get Help
As with other diseases, the earlier addiction is treated, the better. But don’t be surprised if you’re met with denial or excuses as to why they can’t or won’t seek treatment. Be persistent about how important it is that they enter treatment either residential treatment (rehabs) or community treatment (drug and alcohol services) for their addiction, but avoid them feel guilty or ashamed in the process.
Another option is to hold an intervention for that person. Although these are often difficult to do, an intervention may be exactly what your loved one needs if they’re deep into their addiction. Consider bringing in an intervention specialist to help you navigate this process. This type of process should be considered after all other opportunities have been explored and exhausted as this can push the person further away and alienate them from those trying to help.
Support Their Recovery As an Ongoing Process
Once your loved one decides to enter treatment in whichever form it takes, it’s essential that you remain involved. Continue supporting their participation in ongoing care, meetings, and recovery support groups. Be the support system that they needand show them that you’ll be there every step of the way.
Take Care of Yourself
Although you may see this as selfish, it’s incredibly important that you’re able to be there for others and make the best decisions possible. Make sure your own needs are met by getting enough sleep, exercising and eating and drinking water or fruit juices. Don’t be afraid to go to therapy to get help if you find yourself struggling due to your loved one’s drug addiction. You can only help someone if you’re in a good position to help.
Try Working With Their Keyworker Or Other Healthcare Professionals
Addicts will often try to manipulate situations to try to get and use more drugs or alcohol. By working alongside their keyworkers or other healthcare professionals means that everyone is aware of what is happening to best help that person but also means you can challenge situations where they are trying to manipulate that situation. It is important to work from a unified front, not only for their own safety but also so that they can get the best and most appropriate help the addict in question. They may not see it that way in the beginning and may pushback against and fight that decision as they know that they cannot manipulate the situation to drink or use more but it is in their best interest in the long run. However depending on where you live and which country you live in, data protection or patient confidentiality may limit or stop this from happening so we recommend that you speak to their Keyworker or healthcare professional for more information.
What to Avoid When Talking To A Loved One About Addiction
When talking to a loved one about getting treatment for their addiction, here are some things to try and avoid:
- Preaching, lecturing, threatening or moralising your loved one
- Emotional appeals that may increase the feelings of guilt and the compulsion to use drugs/alcohol
- Lying or making excuses for their behaviour
- Taking over their responsibilities. Doing this protects them from the consequences of their behaviour
- Enabling their behavior by covering up the abuse or giving them money for drugs/alcohol
- Arguing with your loved one when they’re using drugs/alcohol. During this time, your loved one won’t be able to hold a rational conversation and likely won’t be open to listen and respond to what you have to say.
- Feeling guilty or responsible for their behavior. It’s not your fault
If you feel that your loved one is abusing drugs or alcohol, the best thing you can do is to encourage them to seek treatment for their addiction. Be loving and supportive, but also know that they’re going to make excuses for their behavior. Be firm in what you want and keep encouraging them to get help. Although this isn’t easy to do, it’s a critical first step in helping them achieve a healthy, happy and productive life in recovery.
What Not to Do
Don’t Look Down on Them
Being upset at your addicted loved one is normal, but understand that addiction is a disease. They did not wake up one morning and decide to become addicted. Avoid blaming them for their addiction or looking down on them for using drugs or alcohol. There is enough stigma surrounding addiction and what your loved one needs from you is support not judgement.
Don’t Ignore the Problem
No one ever imagines that addiction will happen to someone they know. So, when it does, it can be very difficult to accept. You may be tempted to ignore the signs of addiction, to make excuses for your loved one, or to deescalate the severity of their addiction. But trying to convince yourself that “it’s not that bad,” or that they’re simply going through a tough time or phase that they’ll snap out of is not doing your loved one any favors. Remember, addiction is a progressive disease, and your loved one will only get worse the more they use or drink.
Don’t Force Them to Quit
When it comes to addiction, tough love rarely works. Ultimatums or forcing them into treatment might work momentarily, but if they are not ready to get sober or clean, they are likely to go right back to using the moment they leave rehab or community treatment.
Don’t Enable Them
Watching a loved one’s life unravel is difficult and you are most likely doing everything you can to help. But when it comes to addiction, there is a fine line between helping and enabling them. Some common ways that family members enable their loved ones include: giving them money, paying their bills, lying for them, bailing them out of trouble, and excusing their behavior. Pay attention to your behavior and ask yourself if you are truly helping them or if you’re inadvertently enabling them to continue to use drugs and drink alcohol.
Don’t Give Up
You might become frustrated with your loved one if they refuse to get help or if they relapse multiple times, but don’t give up on them. The last thing someone struggling with addiction needs to hear is that you don’t believe they can change. If you give up on them, they are likely to give up on themselves as well. Remember, battling addiction is hard but not impossible, and having a strong support system can make all the difference in helping your loved one get into and stay in recovery and live a long, happy and prosperous life.
How You Can Help
Educate Yourself About Addiction
If you have never been directly exposed to alcoholism or drug addiction, you may be misinformed about what addiction is, who it affects, and how it affects them. It is important that you do your own research so that you can better understand what your loved one is going through. The more informed you are, the more you will be able to help them. If in doubt, contact their drug and alcohol keyworker (if they have one) or contact your nearest drug and alcohol service and they will give you the best advice and guidance. You can find your nearest drug and alcohol service on our help and support page.
Address the Issue
Know that ignoring the issue won’t make it go away. So, while confronting your loved one about their addiction can be intimidating, this an important conversation that you need to have sooner rather than later. Some ways to better prepare for this conversation include: speaking to a professional at your nearest drug and alcohol service, finding the right time (when they are temporarily sober or clean if possible) and writing down what you want to say. During the conversation, try to stay calm, be open and honest, and let them know that you are there to help them get better and you won’t judge them no matter what they tell you. This will allow them to know you are willing to listen and not judge so that they can be more open and honest with you.
Your loved one might not be ready to accept your help or professional help just yet, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing you can do for them. You can start by researching different addiction treatment options and help you to work out the best ways for you to help that person while you have the time. Go online, request literature, or give your nearest drug and alcohol service a call. Explore your options and determine what would be the best fit for your loved one. The more informed you are, the more prepared you will be for when they are ready to get help.
In the chaos of addiction, setting boundaries or lines that cannot be crossed plays an important role in assuring your well-being and hopefully, encourages your loved one to seek help. Common boundaries include not allowing your loved one to drink or use around you, setting curfews, refusing to bail them out of legal or financial trouble and not giving them money. It’s important that once you set a boundary, you follow through. If there are no consequences for not following the rules, then your addicted loved one will have no reason to change. While setting boundaries can be tough and firm. Boundaries help protect you and teach your loved one become accountable for their own actions. If they need things then buy them for them but don’t give them the money. If you feel they should buy certain things then tell them and don’t buy it for them. However if you feel you want to help with something then buy it for them and don’t give them the money.
When a loved one is struggling with drugs or alcohol, the last thing on your mind is your own well-being. But addiction is a family disease, and whether you realize it or not, your loved one’s addiction is taking a toll on you too. Be sure to take some time to take care of yourself. Exercise, eat healthy, enjoy some time outside, read a book and do things you enjoy. Know that it’s ok for you to reach out for help, even if your loved one isn’t ready. Counselling or support groups like Nar-Anon or others can be a great resource for support. It may seem selfish to do these things while your loved one struggles, but the truth is that you can’t help them unless you help yourself first. So, give yourself permission to reclaim your life. The happier and healthier you are, the more help you will be able to provide them.
Tip 1: Educate Yourself
Get information about addictions. Understand the addict’s disease process. Find information about how it impacts the family and friends. Knowledge is power and it may help you understand more about yourself and your loved one. There are many resources for finding this information, your nearest drug and alcohol service can give you a list of relevant organisations, resources and written information for you to read through. The public library and the internet have an enormous amount of information for education, groups, support, treatment options etc.
Tip 2: Get Support
When you have a loved one with an addiction problem, it can create a great deal of difficulty in your life and everyone else that is in direct contact with your loved one. There are groups that can help you learn how to cope, provide resources and help the addict (if they want help) including:
- Al-Anon (help for families that include an addict)
- Nar-Anon (focused on drug addiction – prescription and illegal)
- More information and links can be found on our help and support page.
Tip 3: Get Counselling
It may be helpful to get some individual counselling to assist yourself. Counselling isn’t just for the addict. The more you are able to manage, the better you will be able to help and support your loved one. There are a variety of resources to find counsellors. Talk to someone you trust about finding the resources you need and do a search for resources in your area online or by contacting your nearest drug and alcohol service or your GP surgery. Contact information for these services can be found on our help and support page.
Tip 4: Don’t Enable Them
It is difficult for family members or those closest to the addict when the disease takes hold. Often, family members have supported the person’s addiction without even fully realizing that was what they were doing. This is extremely common and by educating yourself will help you to notice this and act on it before enabling continues. Don’t rescue the addict. Let them experience the consequences of their disease. This will also help to reinforce the fact that breaking the set rules and boundaries will have consequences. Many times, people are unable to change until they find that all other avenues have been exhausted and that seeking help/treatment is the only option left. Don’t financially support the addict or their addiction. Many family members and friends buy groceries, give financial assistance to pay for food shopping, tobacco or pay rent to help someone out, but usually it only prolongs the disease as addicts are able to avoid consequences and continue to use their money on drugs or alcohol.
Tip 5: Have Realistic Expectations
Don’t preach or lecture to the addict. They are usually unable/unwilling to hear what you have to say. Continue to hold them accountable to expectations and offer help to direct them to the treatment they need if they are genuinely willing to seek help and stick with it that is! Don’t expect addicts to keep promises as all to often they are not able to do so while in the process of their disease. Don’t react with pity or anger. This will not help you or the addict and may push the trust and support that you have built up previously.
If your loved one is ready to get help, visit our help and support page to find out more information by contacting the relevant organisations found on our list.
Tip 6: Take Care of Yourself
As we mentioned previously, focusing on your own life, commitments and personal well-being is the most important thing you can do to assist the addict. If you are stressed out due to their issues in addition to your own, it creates resentment and cause a strain in your relationship with the addict as well as others close to you. It makes it difficult to want to help someone who has created so much difficulty in your life by taking care of yourself through exercising, getting plenty of sleep, socialising, eating and drinking plenty of water or fruit juice and getting support from relevant organisations, you will be able to better help your loved one when they are ready to accept the help.
The most important thing to remember is that you aren’t alone even though it may feel that way. Many people battle with these issues every day and it is vital to get the resources and support you need from organisations such others who are either in your position or were in your position previously.
Tip 7: Try Alternative Therapies As Well As Western Medicine
Alternative therapies such as meditation, acupuncture, massage, aromatherapy and others can be a useful tool to use in conjunction with accepted western medical approaches. Some types of therapies such as auricular acupuncture (acupuncture in your ears) along with meditation are often offered for free at your nearest drug and alcohol service. They can help to reduce cravings, assist in relaxation and help reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms. It is worth researching other types of therapies available in your local area.
What To Say To Someone Who Has Lapsed/Relapsed
- I’m still here for you
- A relapse doesn’t mean you’ve failed
- I know that you want this to work and I’m still going to be here to help you
- What have you learnt from the relapse
- How can I help you to move forward
- You’ve quit before and I know you can do it again (if they have stopped previously)
- We only want the best for you
- What can you do to ensure that you don’t relapse again such as group meetings (AA, NA, CA), one to one meetings with your Keyworker, read relevant books, watch relevant videos, create or amend your relapse prevention plan or create (if you don’t have one already a daily schedule). Examples of these can be found on our downloads page and in our guide to creating and following a daily schedule.