If your loved one is struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, it’s important to talk to them. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to simply reach out and help. If your loved one is addicted, they might not listen to reason, they might deny having an addiction, and they might not be ready to seek out treatment. Most importantly, because addiction is an extremely personal thing and addiction recovery requires years of work, they need personal motivation for help to work.
Therefore, there are no guarantees that anything you can say or do will help. However, you can take steps to ensure that you say the right things, that you work towards getting them into treatment, and that you offer support without enabling their addiction.
The first step to talking to your loved one about addiction should almost always be learning how addiction works. Often, popular knowledge about addiction is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Today, we know that addiction is a complex mental health disorder which can be treated using behavioral therapy. Yet, socially, addiction is often treated as a personal and a moral failing. That’s distinctly at odds with an epidemic of mental health problems that get worse when people are stressed and in bad economic or social conditions – which over 40.3 million Americans are.
Taking time to learn about addiction will give you a better basis to talk to your loved one because you understand what they are struggling with. You should never use that research to expect that you understand what they are going through, but instead to offer empathy, to better understand possible solutions, and to make better decisions. Here, resources like Al-Anon and reading material distributed by drug recovery and emergency centers is a very good place to start and very accessible, even if you don’t have a lot of medical knowledge.
Tough love is the idea that you have to cut your loved ones off and force them to hit rock bottom for them to recover. This is untrue and it’s extremely harmful. People often find motivation to recover in their loved ones and taking that away from them makes it more difficult to recover. Instead, cut off from people who make life worth living, people who are cut off tend to spiral deeper, to put themselves into more dangerous situations, to contract diseases, and to get caught up in crime. Tough love doesn’t work and avoiding it will allow you to make sure that your relationship is built on trust and on building a future.
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Whether you’re talking to your loved one about their addition, they already know you know, or you’re trying to get them into treatment, it’s important to attempt to avoid judgement. That’s true even if you believe in stigma around addiction. If you make your loved one think that their addiction is their fault, that they are a failure, or that you’re more concerned about what other people think than about their health, you’ll alienate your loved one.
Addiction is a behavioral health disorder and it’s no one’s fault. However, it is treatable, and you can get help for it. Focusing on reinforcing your discussions around addiction from that viewpoint is important. You’ll also want to avoid saying things that insinuate other people matter for that.
E.g., “What if they see you drunk like this”, “Let’s clean up all these bottles before your parents get here” or lying to friends and family. Instead, you should express concern for their health, for their wellbeing, and for their future.
People with a substance use disorder can be temperamental, judgmental, and quick to start fights. They might try to use blame or avoidance to get out of discussions about substance abuse. It’s important for you that you try to avoid these conflicts. If your loved one isn’t being reasonable in the moment, restart the conversation after giving them time to cool off. If they bait you, try to avoid falling into the argument. That can be extremely difficult. Your loved one probably knows you more than well enough to be able to hurt you and they may do so deliberately just to avoid a discussion about substance abuse. At the same time, if you do fall into conflict, you’re letting yourself be manipulated by someone who’s primarily being controlled by an addiction. Avoiding that can allow you to maintain a reasonable conversation and actually talk to your loved one about things that matter.
Your loved one might not be ready to go to rehab or to an outpatient treatment center. However, it’s important that you make it clear that you’re willing to help them get there, when they’re ready. That might involve significant planning and picking out a rehab facility in advance, figuring out transportation, and staging an intervention. It might also include simply letting your loved one know that you’ll plan something with them when they’re ready. In either case, ensuring that your loved one knows it’s your priority for them is important.
Starting discussions around addiction and treatment can be difficult. It’s never as simple as “I see you’ve been struggling and I’d like to help”. People are always going to let their addiction get in the way of getting treatment. The timeline between reaching out and actually getting them into treatment may be longer than you’d like. Unfortunately, people have to go to treatment in their own time. Hopefully, you can put the focus on their health, share how seeing them hurting themselves makes you feel bad, and share concerns for their health, future, and relationships if they continue to allow a substance to control them – with a focus on helping them get better.
If your loved one is struggling with substance abuse, therapy, counseling, and long-term aftercare will help them to get clean or sober and to stay that way. Recovery is a long-term process that may take years, you’ll never have your loved one back exactly as you knew them, but you can help them to get better and to get their life back.