How You Can Support Someone With an Addiction
If you’ve had it up to here with nightly bouts of drunkenness from your spouse or loved one, or you have a good friend who is trying to quit but having a difficult time, you know that the road ahead isn’t an easy one. You may want to support someone who is genuinely interested in getting clean and sober, but may not quite know how to go about it.
You are not at all alone in this regard. With addiction and substance abuse affecting literally millions of people in the U.S. each year, the compounding effect that such addiction and abuse has on families, friends, the workplace and the community at large is enormous. Many people wish and hope that those they know who are addicted get help, but few dare to step in themselves to be part of the recovery process.
Here are some thoughts on how you can support someone with an addiction. Keep in mind that this is not an all-inclusive list. Some suggestions will work for some individuals, but not for others. Take what works and make use of it. Feel free to adapt, combine or add other ideas that come to mind. The point isn’t the what, necessarily, but the extent to which you are willing to get involved. Is this person’s health and welfare important to you? If you can answer yes to this question, maybe you can do something to support his or her recovery from addiction.
Learn What You Can About Addiction
In order to be at all effective in supporting the recovery of someone with an addiction, it is important that you know about addiction in general, and the specific addiction the person has in particular. If all you have is a vague impression of what addiction is, you’re likely to give some well-meaning but perhaps ill-advised advice. You may have good intentions, but the follow-through may be less than adequate. Worse yet, you may say or do all the wrong things.
This is not meant to discourage you from wanting to help someone you know and care about to get into rehab, to stick with rehab, to get into recovery and to work to maintain sobriety. It is meant to give you the solid advice that you can best help your friend, loved one, or co-worker who is addicted if you have at least a basic knowledge of what addiction is and how it works on the human body.
How can you get the primer on addiction? There are many books available on the subject, too many, in fact, to list here. There are also numerous websites, many of them the leaders in the field of addiction treatment and recovery.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH)
- Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- SAMHSA Substance Abuse Treatment Locator
Expect Some Pushback
After you’ve gained some knowledge about what addiction is, or while you are in the process of learning about addiction, you may be eager to encourage your friend, spouse, co-worker or other individual to go into rehab, to get out from under the cloud of addiction.
Not so fast. Before you rush to bombard the person with your recommendations – largely based on what you have learned about the disease of addiction – keep in mind that the individual you are trying to convince may have some thoughts of their own, and they may not at all be in line with what you’re trying to persuade them to do.
Here are some of the common objections or types of responses that you may hear:
- Denial – The person is adamant that they don’t have a problem with alcohol or drugs (or gambling or compulsive sexual behavior, overeating, workaholism, compulsive shopping, and so on). They may admit to overindulging at times, but that this “sometimes” use doesn’t mean that anything is “wrong” with them.
- Refusal to change – Until the person is ready to acknowledge that he or she has a problem with addiction, they’re going to be resistant to change. Some will come right out and state that they’re happy with their life the way it is and don’t want to change. This can be tough to hear, since you can visibly see the damage that their addiction has caused, but you cannot force anyone to get clean and sober. They have to come to the conclusion themselves.
- Embarrassment – The reticence you see and hear from the person may very well stem from supreme embarrassment about their addiction. They know, deep down inside, that what they’re doing has brought harm to themselves and to others, but they are unwilling or unable to address it forthrightly with you. They may try to keep up appearances, to reassure you that there is no problem or that they “have it under control,” but you know differently. Still, you have to be patient and understand that the self-recognition of being addicted and the decision to go into treatment takes time.
- Fear – A huge stumbling block surrounding addiction and getting help to overcome it is fear. The person may be afraid of losing a job, suffering the loss of family relationships, of going to jail as a consequence of actions committed while intoxicated. Fear is not a very good motivator for rehab. Overcoming the individual’s fear may take some time and a few well-placed articles on the subject that you just happen to leave behind. Again, until the person can see that there is more to gain by getting help than continuing on the same path, there isn’t much anyone else can do about it except to be steadfastly supportive.
- Awkwardness – The person may have some reservations about discussing such personal matters with you or with a treating professional. There is no telling when or who such awkwardness will appear. Some people just can’t stand the idea of discussing their own “business” with others, no matter how well meaning that other person may be.
- Avoidance – Another common reason why you’ll encounter resistance when you try to encourage your friend, family member, or co-worker to get help to overcome addiction is that they may be using substances as a way to avoid another problem that they find more troubling or constant. They don’t want to face the pain or deal with the issues, so they continue to use. They will need to come to the realization that there is a way out of this situation, a way that they will be able to address what’s bothering them and holding them back that won’t involve the use of substances. Here you may be able to help with your support and willingness to listen, to provide educational literature or emails.
Getting Started – Establish Trust
Understanding that you’ll likely encounter some resistance from the person you’re trying to help, what is the first thing that you should do? Before anything else, it is necessary that the addicted person trusts you.
This isn’t always an easy task, especially if this is the same person that you feel has already violated your trust and betrayed you with his or her repeated bad habits and their associated consequences. Your family may have been negatively impacted by the spouse or other family member’s going to jail, high legal bills, financial difficulties, loss of a job by the breadwinner, violence and abuse within the family as a result of the addiction, and numerous other actions that have destroyed your trust.
The trust should also be two-way trust. That means you trust the person who is addicted and that person trusts you.
Be aware that certain behaviors on your part will undermine the trust you are working so hard to build, so avoid doing the following:
- Nagging – Who ever got encouraged to make necessary changes, especially changes as difficult as learning how to overcome addiction, by listening to constant nagging about it? The answer is slim to none. No one likes to have someone harping at them constantly. It’s just not conducive to heart-felt change. Just as harmful to trust-building is the tendency to criticize and the practice of lecturing the addicted individual.
- Raising your voice – When you are angry or stressed out because of your own problems, talking to the addicted person can seem like another unpleasant chore. Often, the result of the other person not paying attention to you is that you raise your voice, use curse words, or begin to make threats. None of this will help establish or rebuild trust between the two of you.
- Using yourself – If you also engage in certain substance abusing or addictive behaviors, you will be seen as a hypocrite and a liar by the person you are trying to encourage to get help to overcome their addiction.
- Controlling – You naturally want to help your friend, family member, or co-worker to get the assistance needed so that they can break free of addiction. Some of your comments and actions may be interpreted as controlling by the very person you are trying to help. You can only go so far with your well-meaning words and actions. You have to know when to step back and give the information time to sink in and possibly take hold.
You should also know that if the situation between you and the addicted person is always stressful, this will prompt them to want to use even more, not less. Try to weigh and balance when, where and how you have conversations about getting help and recovery so as to minimize a build-up and release of stress in inappropriate ways (for both of you).
It is also imperative that you realize that addicts will rarely change, or seek help to change, unless and until there are seriously negative and impacting consequences for their actions. In other words, they may have to come to the brink of the abyss before they are willing to step back from it and make some drastic changes – like asking for help and going into treatment or rehab.
While you may be very tempted to try to protect the addicted individual from the consequences of his or her addictive behavior, this is one of the least productive things you could do. It only shields the person from the necessity to take responsibility for what he or she has done. The exception to this is when the person’s addictive behavior jeopardizes others, as in the case of drinking and driving, drug use and driving, or drinking and drug use when driving, for example. Then, you should step in, take away the keys, arrange for alternate transportation or enlist help from others so that such dangerous and potentially life-threatening consequences can be avoided.
Talking with an addicted person is often a fine line between diplomacy, concern, tact and good judgment. Sometimes it involves all of these and more. You can help the situation by keeping in mind the following strategies for communication that should help ease the tension and increase the eventual likelihood that your messages and suggestions are getting through.
Listen – more than you talk. The addicted person has a maelstrom of thoughts going on at any given time. Some considerable amount is devoted to thinking about using: where to get the drugs, when they’ll be able to use, using, and starting the cycle all over again. In between these connected thoughts there may be a slight window of opportunity. This is the time when the addicted person may wish to share or is willing to communicate with you about what is going on in his or her life. Use this time to listen and avoid the tendency to launch into a full-blown dissertation or lecture about what he or she should do next.
Be kind, always. Kindness in actions and words always speaks volumes. It may not seem like it at first, but over time, the addicted person will remember that you always behaved in a kind and respectful, even loving, manner toward him or her. Showing your compassion does not mean that you pity the person. Pity is a turn-off, while compassionate behavior is seen as understanding and possibly helpful.
Act consistently. Be sure that what you say and what you do remain consistent with the message of support and encouragement you are trying to impart to the addicted person. Consistency counts a great deal. There are no mixed messages and you have a better chance of getting through to the addicted person over time.
Be supportive of change. There hopefully will come a time when the addicted person indicates a desire to change. You need to be fully supportive of the change, encouraging it and standing by the individual, regardless of the outcome. Let the person know that you will still be friends and care about him or her no matter what, that your friendship and love is not tied to whether or not he or she goes into treatment. Be constant in your support, as this will be an invaluable asset for you and the recovering addict from here on out.
Set forth your limits. Maybe the addict is profoundly unwilling to change at the present time. Maybe the situation at home, for example, is such that the addict’s actions have serious negative implications for the health and safety of you and other family members, especially children. You need to inform the addict of your limits, telling them in clear and simple words that you will not be able to live with them, or have them live in the same house as you, while they continue their addictive ways. Remember that addicts really don’t want to change until they feel that they have more to lose by continuing their addictive ways than by seeking help to overcome them. Suggest counseling. Offer to assist them in any way possible to find treatment, evaluate options, and take them to and from counseling, whatever it takes. Do not be a doormat hoping that things will change on their own. They won’t.
As much as you want to encourage the addict to change and to learn how to live a life free of substances, you have to recognize that you cannot “fix” them. You are not a therapist (and even if you are, you should leave the treatment to an objective professional).
There is also no “cure” for addiction. There is extensive research in the field of addiction treatment and recovery, specifically in the area of vaccines designed to prevent or reduce symptoms of addiction or to block addiction from occurring, but much more work and testing needs to go on before there is anything practical in this area. There is considerable interest in vaccines against opioid addiction, cocaine addiction, smoking addiction, for example.
You may also benefit from going to support groups such as Al-Anon (the companion group to Alcoholics Anonymous, specifically for loved ones, family members and friends of alcoholics working to remain substance-free). It is often difficult and stressful living and interacting with a person who is addicted or in recovery. You need the support and encouragement of others who are going through similar situations. There is comfort and assistance in such a community that will help you manage your day-to-day situations. Most of all, it is important that you know you are not alone, that you have resources and allies in your goal to support someone with an addiction.