6 Ways to Help a Loved One with a Substance Use Disorder

March 4, 2020

It’s hard to watch someone you care about struggle with addiction. Addiction leads to poor choices and self-destructive behavior. Their behavior may make you feel frustrated or even desperate. You may feel tempted to cut ties with them completely. However, social support often makes the difference between getting help and continuing on a destructive path. If someone you care about is struggling with a substance use disorder, here are some ways you can help.

Learn about addiction.

The first thing is to learn the basics of addiction. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about addiction out there, such as the rock-bottom myth or that addiction is mainly the result of poor self-control. Research debunked these ideas long ago but they remain widespread. Just understanding the basics about addiction and recovery will give you a clearer idea of what your loved one is experiencing and how to help. 

You might start by perusing the National Institute on Drug Abuse site, drugabuse.gov, as well as reading other articles on the subject. For more depth, there are many great books about addiction, treatment, and recovery. Some good books include The Unbroken Brain by Maria Salavitz, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate, or memoirs like Recovery by Russell Brand. There are also many online forums where people with substance use disorders discuss their challenges. These can offer valuable insight into what your loved one might be feeling but can’t tell you.

Listen Without Judgment

One of the most important things is to keep the lines of communication open. This can be hard since you may be tired of hearing lies and excuses, however, it doesn’t cost you anything to listen to. Your long-term goal is to keep the relationship in good enough shape that your loved one will trust you, open up, and possibly ask you for help. 

When talking to your loved one, set judgments aside for the moment. People with substance abuse issues are typically sensitive to judgment and criticism. Give them your full attention. Don’t be distracted by your phone or doing something else when they are trying to talk to you. Show them you care by reflecting back on what they tell you. In other words, rephrase what they’ve said, using words like, “So it sounds like you’re telling me…” You may be surprised how many misunderstandings you catch with this simple practice. 

Encourage Them to Get Help

As noted above, one of the most common myths about addiction is that someone with a substance use disorder can’t recover until they hit rock bottom. However, if you think about it, this idea doesn’t hold up. For one thing, one person’s rock bottom is another person’s mild inconvenience. The only guaranteed rock bottom is death, which, unfortunately, happens to more than 70,000 people with drug use issues and more than 88,000 people with alcohol use issues each year. 

On the other hand, many—perhaps most—people enter treatment even though they’re not quite sure if they’re ready to get sober. A common motivation is that they finally realize how much their substance use is hurting their family. It may be precipitated by another crisis, such as getting fired or getting arrested as a result of substance use. These things are clear signs something is wrong. People often enter treatment as part of a drug court deal. They may not have much interest in getting sober but they give it a try because they have a lot of interest in staying out of prison. The point is that people are persuadable if you keep the lines of communication open and approach them in a supportive and compassionate way.

Support Them Without Enabling

It can be frustrating to continue helping someone who seems intent on ruining his life. There are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, you ultimately can’t control someone else’s behavior. You can try to persuade them, and you might even have some leverage over some of their behavior but, ultimately, they are going to make their own choices. If you care about the person’s health and safety, you can help them out by making sure they have something to eat and a safe place to stay, but it’s also important not to enable their addictive behavior. That means you absolutely shouldn’t give them money. It also means you shouldn’t do things for them such as paying their rent or taking care of the responsibilities they neglect because of substance use. The most supportive thing you can do is help them get treatment,

Help Them Find Treatment

There are many hurdles on the way to treatment. Some have to do with the person’s internal resistance but others are more practical. If you have a substance use disorder, it may be hard to organize treatment for yourself. There are something like 14,000 addiction treatment facilities in the US alone, in addition to other treatment services, like medical care and therapy. That’s often too much for someone with a substance use disorder to deal with alone, especially if they have other issues, like major depression or anxiety. Be willing to research treatment options and help your loved one actually follow through.

Consider Help for Yourself

Finally, it might be a good idea to consider getting help for yourself. For one thing, living with someone with a substance use disorder is stressful and it can take a toll on your mental health. Second, addiction is often deeply connected to relationship issues. For example, if your spouse has a substance use disorder, it’s possible you’re in a codependent relationship. Dysfunctional family relationships often feed an addiction. By getting help for yourself, you can indirectly help your loved one too. 

It’s never easy living with a loved one with a substance use disorder. The main things are to listen with compassion and to be willing to help. At the same time, you can’t be too attached to the outcome. In the end, you have relatively little control over your loved one’s behavior. The best thing you can do is encourage your loved one to get help. At Steps Recovery Centers, we use the time-tested 12-Steps to help our clients recover from addiction. We offer many treatment options to suit different needs. To learn more about our programs, explore our website or call us today at 385-236-0931.

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