It can be very difficult to watch a loved one struggling with addiction. A friend or partner may be acting unlike their usual self, your relationship with them may not take priority, and you may be overwhelmed with concern for their well-being.
This is only natural, as an active addiction affects not only the person struggling, but also their friends and family members. Addiction can cause erratic and unpredictable behavior, and loved ones may find themselves picking up the pieces. As these factors may place a strain on your mental health or even cause financial issues, you may be wondering how to help someone with an addiction.
Understanding what substance abuse and addiction are could provide some insight into what to do to help.
Understanding Substance Abuse and Drug Addiction
How can you tell whether a loved one’s substance use has become abuse, or whether they have become addicted? When is the right time to start acting?
A deliberate decision to use alcohol, medicine, or illegal drugs in an unsafe way is typically referred to as drug abuse. This may mean binge drinking alcohol, using prescription medication other than how a doctor prescribed, or snorting, smoking, or injecting illegal street drugs.
Usually, people perceive positive effects from their first use of a drug, and they may believe that they can control their use. But unfortunately, drugs and alcohol interfere with a person’s normal brain activity and can quickly take over someone’s life. In some cases, abusing drugs only once can cause a dependency to develop. In other cases, the repeated use or abuse of drugs starts to have long-term effects on the brain, and these changes can easily turn drug and alcohol abuse into a full-blown addiction.
Drug or alcohol addiction is also called substance use disorder and is defined as a chronic and relapsing disorder. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 38.7 million people in the United States suffered from a substance use disorder in 2020. It happens when a person has lost control over their drug use or when they have lost insight into knowing when or how to stop.
In this situation, a person’s body becomes dependent on the drug, and tolerance develops. This is when the body needs increasingly larger amounts of it for a person to feel the same effect. When someone attempts to stop using it, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. These elements form the physical part of addiction or drug dependence, where someone may feel compelled to continue to abuse drugs in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
The main characteristic of addiction is that a person engages in compulsive drug seeking and drug use, despite the many adverse consequences. They may experience cravings (a strong desire, urge, or need to use alcohol or drugs), and will feel anxious or irritable if they can not obtain or use it, even though the negative effects are there. Addiction may cause a person to take more drugs or alcohol than they mean to. These concepts form the psychological part of an addiction.
As addiction involves functional changes to the circuits in the brain that are involved in self-control, stress, and reward, it is considered a brain disorder. Similar to other diseases, it disrupts the healthy functioning of organs in the body and can cause serious and harmful effects. It is also a progressive disease, which means that in most cases, the condition becomes worse unless treatment help is sought.
How to Help Someone With Addiction
It can be very difficult to help someone who suffers from a substance use disorder. They may be in denial or disagree that they have a problem. They may fear change or consequences of their actions and feel embarrassed or uncomfortable discussing it.
Many times, people engage in their addiction as a means to avoid dealing with an underlying problem, such as mental illness. Substance abuse occurs in one in four adults who live with serious mental health problems.
There is no easy or fast way to help someone with an addiction, and it is important to remember that it is not your job to ‘fix’ them. Overcoming an addiction requires a lot of effort and support, and if a person does not want to change their behavior, persuasion is unlikely to work. But there are helpful tips that people may refer to in order to support a family member or friend who is suffering from addiction.
Don’t Ignore It
Since no one imagines that addiction will happen to their loved one, they may do everything in their power to deny the fact that their partner or friend suffers from a substance use disorder. It may be tempting to ignore the signs of addiction or downplay its severity, but making excuses for their behavior or convincing yourself that the situation is not that bad will only keep the addiction going. It is important to recognize addiction so that the person struggling can find help as soon as possible.
The more informed a person is, the more they will be able to help. Firstly, gaining an understanding of addiction as a progressive brain disease instead of a moral failing or a conscious choice may help process all the hurt. Realizing that a person in an active addiction no longer makes choices in terms of clear thinking, or evaluating the consequences of their actions, can help provide some perspective into their reality and yours.
It may be helpful to learn about substance use disorder. Getting information about the specific drug a loved one is addicted to may help you understand the process of their addiction and their behaviors. It may be useful to know what to expect once a loved one decides to begin treatment, so finding out about treatment options and recovery support in advance can help you to help them. Find out about local treatment facilities, community-based organizations, or support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
When addiction takes hold, it can be a difficult time for family members and friends.
Unfortunately, there is a fine line between helping and enabling a loved one who suffers from addiction. Quite often, family and friends support a loved one’s addiction without realizing it.
A family member or friend may try their best to hide a loved one’s addiction by providing an alibi for when they missed work or giving them money to afford their living costs. They may be making excuses for their behavior, avoiding reporting harmful acts like stealing, or pretending that they do not have a problem to avoid potential complications.
But rescuing someone with an addiction may be enabling them. By avoiding legal troubles and implications of dangerous acts, a person is shielded from experiencing the full consequences of drug abuse. Protecting a loved one from these consequences creates a distorted view for them, whereby well-intentioned actions give them a free pass to continue substance abuse and may prevent them from seeking treatment.
Another way of enabling is by trying to prevent their destructive behavior. For example, a person drinking and driving might put themselves and others in danger, so keeping them from drinking is helpful. But offering to drive them home whenever they go out to drink enables their actions. Although difficult, allowing a loved one to make mistakes without the promise of rescue may just push them to realize that they should seek treatment.
Try Not to Blame
Anyone struggling with addiction is dealing with a range of intense emotions. Friends or family members will need to know how to interact with them positively and helpfully.
It may be hard not to blame a loved one for their addiction. But the person is not at fault for the disease, and implying or stating that they are is not helpful. Shaming and criticizing can be counterproductive for seeking support and for the recovery process.
While tough love may play a part in helping a partner or friend, it may be more helpful to practice compassion and understanding. Making a loved one feel like an outcast could make them feel shame, placing them in a less comfortable position to reach out. Nagging or lecturing them, yelling or calling them names, or exaggerating their behavior destroys any trust that they may crucially need to open up to you or a healthcare professional.
Another part of trust is that the person making demands will have to avoid being seen as hypocritical. This means that engaging in addictive behaviors oneself has to be avoided.
Being in a close relationship with someone who is suffering from addiction can be challenging, but placing ultimatums such as “if you loved me, you would quit” rarely ever works. While it may be frustrating, it is best not to expect initial conversations to lead to immediate changes. Conveying concerns while letting them know that you are there for them may be a better approach.