If your loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder, you obviously want to help. Unfortunately, actually getting through to them can be incredibly difficult. Addiction changes people. IT changes their priorities, it changes their motivation, and it changes how they react to things. There are valid medical reasons for that. But, it does make it significantly harder to actually reach out to them when you want to help.
Unfortunately, there are never any guarantees that you can reach through to your loved one. You may never be able to help. To an extent, that’s fair because your loved one has to save themselves. It has to be their motivation, their drive, and their work that gets them clean and sober. Otherwise, they will simply relapse the second you stop supporting them. And, as you know you can’t constantly spend all of your time helping them – that’s unhealthy for them and for you and leads to codependence. Instead, you have to offer encouragement, support, and motivation to get into treatment. That approach takes longer and more effort, but is eventually, the best way to get your loved ones into treatment.
Taking time to learn about addiction and how it impacts people can have a two-fold impact on your loved one. The first is that you get to learn about addiction and how it works. This means you can better understand what is going on, better understand where your loved one is at mentally, and better understand how their thought processes or motivations might be working. Books like Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari, Beyond Addiction by Jeffrey Foote, or A Very Fine House by Barbara Stoefen are great places to start. However, you can almost always get resources by going to local 12 step groups like Al-Anon, AA, even drug recovery and emergency centers. These often provide plenty of reading material with clear, no-nonsense information you can use to inform yourself and your loved ones.
The second is that your loved one will see you putting in time and effort to understand what they’re going through. That’s more than they likely expect. They’ll also see you working to understand them and why. However, it is important that you don’t take something you read and use it as a diagnosis for them. People experience addiction, mental health disorders, and even stress in very different ways. Try listening and asking your loved one what they’re going through instead of being prescriptive.
Addicts are accustomed to judgement. For example, often, family members start out by judging choices, by judging the state people have “let themselves” get into, for bringing shame and embarrassment on the family, etc.
While we know that addiction is a mental health disorder of the behavioral category, most people aren’t aware of that. Addiction is very often not treated like a behavioral disorder (like anorexia) or a mental health disorder (like anxiety or depression) but rather as a series of increasingly bad choices. People are shamed. Even when they are very obviously extremely sick, people experience both outward and inward stigma – where outside voices only serve to reinforce and add to their own inner voices telling them they’re a failure. The thing is, that kind of thinking is both wrong and self-defeating. People have to believe they can change in order to work for change. People also have to believe they have a future if they are going to improve. And the popular idea that once an addict, always an addict doesn’t help.
Be there for your loved one, listen to them, and actually listen. You can understand that you would not and have not made the kinds of choices they have without judging them for it. Practicing non-judgement is difficult. You might start out by just trying not to show judgement. But, eventually, you should talk to your loved one without judging their decisions, actions, or behavior – only expressing concern instead.
Being there for your loved one can be difficult without slipping into enabling behavior. But, it’s important they know they can rely on you for important things. For example, listening to them, helping them find a place to stay, ensuring they have naloxone, getting them a meal, helping them move into rehab, etc.
Usually, it’s important to ensure that they know you’ll be there when you need it. That should never be for money. But you should be able to listen to them, to give them a place to sleep, or even to pick them up in case of an emergency. Providing that can be difficult, but it will help your loved one to realize that you actually want to help them.
The concept of “tough love” where you have to let someone hit rock bottom in order for them to climb up, is a myth. It’s also incredibly harmful, because it often cuts people off from the very factors that would otherwise motivate them to get clean or sober. A loving family and relationship. Tough love often requires you to cut off your loved one and maybe even stop talking to them. Sometimes it proscribes throwing people out onto the street (This is not only dangerous, but also illegal). The thing about tough love is that it doesn’t work. It pushes people further away while splitting them away from loved ones who could offer support to get help. That results in higher rates of death and disease and longer periods of addiction.
Of course, it’s important that you have good boundaries. You shouldn’t have to live with someone if it’s difficult for you. You shouldn’t allow someone to bully or manipulate you. However, if you can, practicing boundaries while still offering support and love can make a huge difference.
It’s important that your loved one knows that their friends and family are there for them. It’s important they hear this from more than one person. Getting your friends and family involved with offering support, offering assistance into rehab, and being there for them. If you have to, staging an intervention can also help. However, it’s also important that you work to build trust and ensure your loved one sees that those emotional relationships are still there – interventions are hard to pull off a second time if the first one doesn’t work.
Eventually, getting through to your loved one means building up trust, showing them you care about them and their wellbeing, and being motivation for them to get clean and sober. Good luck with your loved one and hopefully you can get through to them.