Helping a friend or loved one struggling with drug or alcohol addiction is often a long and heartbreaking journey. At times, it can be so overwhelming that ignoring the situation may seem like an easier solution. However, sweeping the issue under the rug can be 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 loved one to get the help they need.
Caring for someone with a drug problem can be very stressful. You may feel anxious, depressed or ashamed because of their drug use. But remember, you're not alone. There is support available for you and the person you care for.
There are many reasons why it can be difficult to help someone you care about who has an addiction. Your loved one:
- May not agree they have a problem
- May not want to change what they are doing
- May fear consequences (e.g., losing their job or going to prison)
- May feel embarrassed and not want to discuss their addiction with you (or anyone else)
- May feel awkward about discussing their personal issues with a professional, such as a doctor or counselor
- May engage in their addiction as a way to avoid dealing with another problem (such as mental illness)
There is no fast and easy way to help a person with an addiction. Overcoming addiction requires great willpower and determination. If someone does not want to change their behavior, trying to persuade them to get help is unlikely to work.
How can I tell if someone's using drugs?
You might not realise for a while that the person is using drugs. There's no sure way to tell, but some clues include:
- burnt foil, which may have been used for smoking heroin
- tiny pieces of cling wrap, paper or card that have been used to wrap drugs
- hand-rolled cigarettes with filters made from cardboard
- spoons and syringes
- small sealable plastic bags used to store drugs
- pipes, plastic bottles or drinks cans that have been pierced or tampered with
Drugs can cause changes in people's physical appearance, including:
- sudden weight loss or gain
- sniffing or a runny nose
- small pupils
- red, glassy or bloodshot eyes
- frequent nosebleeds
- slurred speech
Changes in behaviour can also be a sign that someone is using drugs. These could include:
- seeming withdrawn or inactive
- extreme changes in mood or behaviour
- increased spending or loss of possessions
- changes in sleeping patterns
- not worrying about personal grooming
- losing interest in sports or hobbies
- neglecting responsibilities
- appearing agitated or restless
Many of these clues are caused by other things. It's normal for teenagers, especially, to go through emotional changes.
It's important to talk honestly to the person rather than making assumptions. It will help if you get your facts right.
There are different reasons why people use drugs. If someone you care about uses drugs, it can be very hard to understand why they are doing this. However, they are responsible for their own behaviour and it's their decision to use drugs. They are also responsible for deciding whether to stop using drugs.
Some families of people who use drugs will be in denial and refuse to believe the facts. Others will end up encouraging drug use, whether deliberately or not, by providing money that can be used for drugs. Some will try to control or change the situation, while some will give up hope of change.
When someone uses drugs, their behaviour often leads to conflict with the people who care about them. A person using drugs may do things that you think are unacceptable, particularly if they happen in the home where you or other family members live.
If an addicted person has already betrayed your trust, regaining and maintaining it can be tough. However, establishing trust both ways is an important first step in helping someone with addiction think about change.
Avoid These Trust-Destroyers:
- Nagging, criticizing, and lecturing the addicted person.
- Yelling, name-calling, and exaggerating (even when you are stressed yourself).
- Engaging in addictive behaviors yourself, even in moderation (they will think you are a hypocrite).
Trust is easily undermined, even when you are trying to help. There are a few things to keep in mind as you are thinking about talking to your loved one about their addiction.
- Different perspectives. While you may only want to help your loved one, they might think you are trying to control them. These feelings can lead a person with addiction to engage in their addiction even more.
- Stress can make things worse. Your loved one likely uses their addictive behavior (at least partly) as a way to control stress. If the atmosphere between the two of you is stressful, they will want to do the addictive behavior more, not less.
- Trust goes both ways. Building trust is a two-way process. Trust is not established when you continue to put up with unwanted behavior. (If you currently have no trust for your loved one and do not feel that it can be established, move ahead to Step 2).
- Understand the role of consequences. People with addiction rarely change until the addictive behavior begins to have consequences. While you might want to protect your loved one, resist the urge to try to protect someone with addiction from the consequences of their own actions.
The exception to allowing for consequences is if your loved one is doing something that could be harmful to themselves or others—for example, drinking and driving.
Get Help for Yourself First
Being in a relationship with a person who has an addiction is often stressful. It's important that you accept that what you are going through is difficult and seek support. You also need to develop stress management strategies—an important step in helping your loved one as well as yourself.
You might want to consider participating in support groups, such as Al-Anon or Naranon. Children and teens can get support from Alateen.
You might be more than ready to let your loved one know how you feel about the issues their addiction has caused and feel a strong urge to get them to change.
While it can be frustrating, remember that the decision to change is theirs.4 A person with an addiction is much more likely to be open to thinking about change if you communicate honestly and without being threatening.
If you want them to change, you will probably have to change too, even if you don’t have an addiction. If you show you are willing to try, your loved one will be more likely to try as well.
Identify Treatment Options
The process of treating addiction varies depending on the type of treatment that a person receives. If you are involved in your loved one's treatment:
- Keep working on establishing trust. It might be helpful to re-read Step 1 before going to counseling with your loved one.
- Be honest about your feelings. Tell your loved one what their addiction has been like for you and be honest about what you want to happen next.
- Do not blame, criticize or humiliate your loved one in counseling. Simply say what it has been like for you.
- Be prepared for blame. Do not be surprised if your loved one expresses things you have done or said are contributing to their addiction. Stay calm and listen with an open heart and mind.
If your loved one chooses to pursue treatment on their own:
- Respect their privacy in everyday life. Do not inform friends, family or others about your loved one’s treatment.
- Respect their privacy in therapy. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t push for them to tell you what happened.
- Practice patience. There are many approaches to addiction treatment, but no change happens overnight.
How you can help them
Even when they know they have a drug problem, it can be difficult for people to change. You may need to be patient. If the person isn’t ready to seek help, you can still support them by trying to minimise the impact that their drug use has on them and others around them.
As a start, you may be able to help by letting them know about the support that's available to them. If they choose to seek help for their drug use, you can support them by being understanding about how they're feeling, while encouraging them in the changes they've chosen to make.
For many people, taking action to deal with their drug use is just the start, and maintaining the changes they've made may be the most difficult part. Recognising situations that could trigger their drug use, and trying to avoid these, could help. If the person you care for does lapse back into drug use, you can encourage them to seek help, for example by keeping in contact with local support services.
If the person you care for continues to use drugs despite the support you provide, this can be very frustrating and demoralising. Remember, the decision to use drugs is their responsibility, not yours, and make sure you seek help for yourself as a carer.