Helping an Addict Choose Recovery
It is a helpless feeling to watch a loved one abuse or become addicted to drugs or alcohol. You want to help them but wonder if there is anything you can do that will make a difference. You may share a common misperception that a person must willingly seek treatment for themselves in order for it to succeed.
But that is not always the case. Often, the person who is abusing or addicted to substances has lost the ability to make impartial, well-thought out decisions regarding their condition and the best options to pursue for their own well-being. These are the times when friends and family can step in and assist their loved one in getting the help they need.
When and How to Talk About the Need for Treatment
Your first priority in deciding when and how to talk to someone about their substance use and the need for possible treatment is to err on the side of safety. Intervene immediately if you suspect an overdose, withdrawal or other life-threatening issue.
If an emergency intervention is not warranted, here are some strategies that you can pursue, over time, to help someone move toward acceptance of the idea of entering treatment:
- Chose the Right Time to Talk. It won’t do any good to bring up the subject of treatment with a person who is high. They probably will not be willing or able to really listen and comprehend your message. Instead, find a time when they are most clear-headed and have the least amount of addictive substance in their body, such as right after they awaken from a long sleep.
- Remain Calm and Avoid Judging. Do your best to remain calm and patient despite your concerns and likely frustrations. Openly demonstrating your own intense emotions will simply serve to stir up the guilt, shame and anger that the addicted person is already dealing with, and will put them in defensive mode, effectively barring any further meaningful discussion.
- Stick to the Facts and Use Simple Truth. Instead of an elaborate, thorough playback of the person’s recent blunder, simply and concisely state the literal truth. (Ex: “You came in last night at 3 am, stumbled over a table and awakened the children.”)
- Do Let them Know How Their Behavior Affects You. Even though it is best to keep your message concise and on point, you still need to help your loved one realize the impact that their actions have on you and your family. (Ex: “I was afraid for your safety, and concerned that the kids were witnessing you in this condition.”)
Limits and Boundaries: What you Can and Cannot Potentially Achieve
While your goal is to help a loved one understand the seriousness of their condition and encourage them to seek help, you only have so much influence.
- You Can’t Choose for Them. Adults have the right of self-determination, which means they can make their own choices about how they live their lives (within lawful bounds), even if their choices are self-destructive. Even though it pains you, if a loved one rejects your help, you must accept their choice. Hopefully you will have planted a seed of insight in their mind that will later grow and help them make better choices down the road.
- You Can’t Do the Work of Recovery for Them. There is a fine line between helping, encouraging and supporting a loved one toward healing and taking over the problem yourself. You can partner with them, but they must do the real work for themselves.
- You Can Become Better Educated about addiction so you can understand what you are working with. Groups like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, that support friends and family members of alcohol and drug abusers, and ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) can provide education and support to those who are affected by the substance use of someone they care about.
- You Can Explore Available Options. You may be in a better position to gather and study information about treatment options and treatment centers. Since your loved one’s decision-making capacity is hampered, you can be a valuable resource and support person to help them make such crucial decisions.
When helping someone you care about, you run the risk of slipping into a codependent relationship. Codependency is a situation where it is almost like you have become addicted….to helping. Feeling needed and feeling like you can solve a problem that another can’t is a powerful and pleasant feeling.
Becoming over-involved in helping, to the point where you make excuses for the behavior of the person you are helping, or you provide them with the ability to continue using because you take over their responsibilities (financial or otherwise), is called enabling.
To avoid codependency and enabling, you need to set and strictly maintain boundaries. This means creating lines that must not be crossed, and enacting consequences if the lines are crossed. For instance, stating that you will no longer accept a loved one entering the home when they are drunk or high, and then following through by changing the locks or using other measures to protect your boundary if it is violated.
Should You Consider an Intervention?
In addiction, the person with the problem often does not recognize the severity of their problem and they are reluctant to address it. To get them help, a more challenging and direct approach may needed. An intervention involves a face-to-face meeting between the substance user and their family members, friends and/or others who are negatively affected by the person’s substance use.
The goal of an intervention is to offer a structured environment, where the person can hopefully be led to recognize the severity of their problem and accept help (such as entering a treatment program). Interventions can be conducted with or without a professional Intervention specialist. But having expert help, via a therapist or rehab counselor, is advisable, especially if the substance user has a history of serious mental illness, violence or suicidal behavior.
An intervention specialist can analyze the situation impartially, develop sensible strategies for the Intervention, lead and monitor discussion to maximize effectiveness and minimize conflict, and suggest options for treatment.
Find more information and contacts for Intervention assistance at:
- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) ( See Intervention Tips and Guidelines page)
- Mayo Clinic (See Intervention: Help a Loved One Overcome Addiction page)
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