Their personality has changed. They tend to lie and ask for money and care little about quality time with those who care about them. They do things that upset others and leave the family ashamed or angry. Blood relationships and friendships are strained and drained. Bridges are broken.
On top of this, the alcoholic or substance abuser might not be open to treatment. For all the damage they do, they may not even recognize they’re sick. Unfortunately, treatment rarely works if the addict doesn’t want it. Family members and close friends are left feeling hopeless, helpless, and angry.
If you care about someone with a substance abuse problem, here are some ideas.
How to help your friend or loved one
Avoid name calling and fault-finding. You’ll be angry or hurt at times, but do your best to avoid tearing the person into pieces — either figuratively, verbally, or physically — as it will likely just push them further into their addiction.
Offer your advice carefully. Make your recommendations more powerful by limiting how often you give them. The less said, the more that’s heard.
Set boundaries. Boundaries are meant to help you protect yourself, do what is best for the addict (even though boundaries may be opposite to what they want), and improve the health of the relationship. Do not use boundaries to punish or shame. Examples of boundaries are prohibiting drugs in the home, requiring negative urine toxicology results in exchange for a bed in the house, or agreeing to avoid war stories around a sober friend.
Don’t help them use drugs. Don’t enable their addiction. This means don’t give them large sums of money, let them talk obsessively about the joys of using, make excuses for them, bail them out of jail repeatedly, or pay for their mistakes. Don’t shield the addict from their addiction. People are more likely to change if they aren’t rescued from the negative consequences of their actions.
Help them get and stay off drugs. Offer rides to doctor’s appointments, support groups, twelve-step programs, and rehabilitation. If the indiividual is trying to not use drugs, help them avoid places and people that could trigger a relapse. Help them find things to take their mind off drugs. Talk to them about what they’re doing to stay clean. Congratulate them for each new day sober.
Help them with basic needs. Never give a person with an addiction a lump sum of cash. If you want to provide financial support, purchase the goods and services yourself and provide them directly. Gift cards for the local supermarket might be an option, but with limited credit to minimize the risk of their being traded for drugs. If affordable and reasonable and within your control, help your loved one find a place to live and show them how to look for a job. Housing might be a place in your home, a week’s paid hotel, or a list of shelters. Sober living settings like the Salvation Army or an Oxford House are good housing options.
Encourage your loved one to seek professional help for mental and physical problems. It’s hard to beat something as big as an addiction when you’re struggling with depression, unstable diabetes, chronic pain, and other problems. Encourage your loved one to get treatment and take their medications.
If they’re actively using, explore all options. Encourage your loved one to pursue treatment and stability. If you’re up to it, do a bit of research and give them a list. They’ll look at it when they’re ready. What sorts of treatment? Consider detox, rehab, substance abuse counseling, wilderness or work programs, Methadone and Suboxone maintenance treatment (for opiate use disorders), twelve-step programs, or a visit to the emergency room. Remember, if your loved one has been using for a while, it’s almost impossible to become sober and clean without professional help.
Recognize and acknowledge your loved one’s potential. Remind them of their past achievements and that it’s never too late to start over. Paint a positive image of the future.
Do everything in small steps. Focus your energies on helping your loved one stay clean before insisting they get a higher-paying job, go back to graduate school, or start saving to buy a house. Adjust your expectations according to “where they’re at” and applaud all efforts and achievements.
Take care of yourself. Read everything you can about substance abuse and alcoholism, and familiarize yourself with treatment resources in your community and state. Attend Al–Anon and co-dependency meetings. Never put more work into overcoming their problem than they do. Make sure to have a separate life that has nothing to do with their addiction. If you need distance, make it so.
In the end, you’ll have a mix of emotions, mostly negative. This is normal. Consider talking to a friend or someone you trust to blow off steam. If things are bad, touch bases with your doctor about help for stress, insomnia, depression, or anxiety, or find a therapist.
For more information, check out Questions about substance abuse and addiction (from the author’s other website). The National Institute of Drug Abuse also has great articles for helping a loved one with addiction.