The best way to help a loved one or friend with addiction is by getting actively involved. Involvement should be both intentional and supportive. This begins with an informed understanding of addiction signs and symptoms. Next is the difficult conversation. From there, you may begin collaborating in terms of setting new boundaries, seeking out treatment, and how you make work together throughout the recovery process.
How Will I Know When to Help a Loved One with an Addiction?
It is likely that you have sensed something off about your loved one for some time now. What started off as subtle warning signs that were at first easy to shrug off have now become glaringly obvious. Not only are you struggling with watching your loved one struggle, but you, too, are now experiencing distress. Having dealt with the issue for longer than you can possibly stand, you have decided that the time to act is now. And you are right because the sooner you act, the sooner your loved one may hopefully accept treatment. Every moment counts.
Through extensive research, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), has devised a set of criteria that indicate a diagnosable addiction disorder. While such symptoms may be readily recognized by trained professionals or even known by your loved one struggling with addiction, most are internalized, meaning that they are not visibly apparent from the outside looking in.1 It is important, then, to consider some of the more common warning signs that are outwardly apparent.1
Common warning signs of an addiction issue that are more outwardly apparent include your loved one:
- Appearing intoxicated more often
- Experiencing cognitive and memory complications
- Sleeping more or less often and/or at irregular hours
- Appearing unwell or tired
- Expressing emotional liability or an overall change of mood from the norm
- Being lethargic or demonstrating less interest in things once enjoyed
- Struggling with social relationships at home, work, school, and elsewhere
- Distancing from loved ones and friends who may serve as sober support
- Stealing money or other valuable items to pay for their addiction
- Lying about their addiction
- Becoming agitated when confronted about the addiction
- Demonstrating withdrawal symptoms when not intoxicated
- Neglecting their appearance or hygiene1
Know that if your gut instinct is telling you that something is off with your loved one, that you may be right. Rather than wait and see, it is recommended to have a conversation as soon as possible—especially if any of the above signs are present. It is better to speak up and be wrong than to not say anything and allow the addiction to take a stronger hold on the person.
What Can I Do to Help a Loved One With an Addiction?
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help a loved one with an addiction. Unfortunately, these things are oftentimes easier said than done. That said, it is important to first prepare yourself to help. Thoughts to consider are as follows: “Why do I think this person needs help?” “Why do I want to help this person?” “How has this addiction impacted my life as well as the lives of other loved ones?” By carefully considering the answers to these questions you may begin developing the supportive mindset necessary to help your loved one.
Because the road to recovery is oftentimes a long and winding one, it is also important to consider to what extent you are willing to help. The more involved you can be, the better. There are cases, however, where your loved one may not want you to be involved. In others, it may prove clinically inappropriate, especially in the beginning. Either way, it is important to consider your level of involvement and set boundaries around that.
Consider what you need in terms of resources and support—the recovery process will not only be taxing on your loved one but you as well. It is likely that you have already experienced emotional distress atop other challenges, so it is important that you are supported throughout this process. Personal therapy helps, while groups such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon have also proven effective.
What Emotional Support Can I Offer?
Emotional support is of utmost importance throughout this time. Though it might prove challenging, it is important that the emotional support provided is as authentic and positive as possible. That is, it must come from a loving place of genuine concern. Such support is not only offered through words but actions as well.
Support may begin through active listening. This is done by focusing solely on what your loved one is saying and not allowing personal thoughts, judgments, or your voice to intervene. Although it is unlikely you will agree with everything said, what is said is the reality of that individual. To move forward, it is important to—first and foremost—meet your loved one where they are at. The better you actively listen, the better you will understand the situation. Your loved one will also feel heard and likely become more receptive to what you have to say in return.
Regularly checking in is also important. It is not enough to say something once and allow nature to take its course. After the initial conversation, continually check in. One need not constantly place pressure upon the topic, but a simple, “How are you doing? Is there anything I can do to help?” can go a long way. Perhaps your loved one is not ready to change yet, but when they are, you are now a trusted person to reach out to for support.
What Practical Support Can I Offer?
As with just about anything else, it is important to learn as much as possible about the problem before considering appropriate solutions. Accordingly, becoming informed on addiction is key. This article has already provided some common warning signs and risk factors, however, there is a wealth of information available online and elsewhere. When conducting research, it is important to review information from credible resources that are supported through research. If you know the particular condition one is struggling with, researching that narrows down the focus even further.
After learning more about the condition, it is important to then research available treatment and support options. Learning more about the differences between and among support groups, outpatient therapy, detox, intensive outpatient (IOP), residential treatment, et cetera; one may be better equipped to help with the initials stages of setting up treatment. It helps further to begin calling or emailing various providers and agencies to ask questions. If your loved one is willing to engage in treatment and allows your participation, you may help even further by setting up the initial appointment, providing transportation, or even sitting in on sessions.
If you are struggling with an addiction, this is a good time to seek treatment as well. Standing in solidarity by quitting with your loved one is one of the strongest ways of showing support. Doing this shows that you are serious and committed toward both of you living healthier lives. If you are not struggling with addiction but another particular issue or condition that has gone untreated, the same applies. There is power in numbers. When one of you struggles, the other may hold the other accountable. Therapy will be there when you both struggle. It is a well-rounded approach.
How to Talk About Addiction With a Loved One
Speaking to a loved one about their addiction can be intimidating to say the least. Depending on the person, severity of the addiction, your relationship, and other factors; it may be one of the most difficult conversations you will ever have. Hoping for the best while anticipating the worst may help better prepare you for the emotional roller coaster; however, along each step of the way it is important to remain hopeful.
Remember that people tend to become defensive when confronted. This is typical human behavior. Add on top of that a relentless addiction that will stop at nothing to maintain hold of your loved one. Denial of the problem is likely in many cases. Whether in active denial or not, resistance is also likely. Know that this is part of the process. Giving in here is like giving up before the work has even started. Although there is never a guarantee as to how the conversation will go, there are recommended dos and don’ts to maximize success.
Here are some helpful dos and don’ts for talking about addiction to a loved one:
- Have compassion
- Expect difficulties
- Recognize your partner’s good qualities
- Remaining calm when speaking to your loved one about their addiction and its consequences
- Let your loved one know that you are seeking help for your own sake because of the way the addiction has impacted you (and possibly other loved ones)
- Set healthy boundaries2,3
- Remain hopeful, even when it seems that hope is lost
- Shame or criticize
- Expect immediate change
- Enable your loved one
- Preach, lecture, or allow yourself to lose control of your anger
- Exclude your loved one from family life and activities
- Bail out your loved one
- Cover up or deny the existence of the problem to yourself, the family, or others2,3
If any mistakes are made here, try not to become frustrated. You are not a professional, and it is expected that this will be difficult. Apologize, take corrective action, and continue moving forward. The same will be expected of your loved one during recovery whenever a relapse occurs.
What If My Loved One Doesn’t Want My Help With an Addiction?
Addiction is a highly complicated condition. Resistance to accept help is likely, especially at first. A person with addiction is likely to come up with numerous reasons as to why they do not need help or want help but not at this time. If you really want to help your loved one, then you will need to roll with the punches. Anticipate things to get worse before they get better. This is normal given the situation.
Protecting yourself is an important part of this process. First, remember that the situation is not about you. Even if your loved one blames you for everything, it is not about you. Try not to personalize it. From there it is important to come to terms with the situation. Acknowledge it for what it is and realize that you cannot force anyone to change. Any boundaries set during the initial discussion must be upheld. This is the only way you will be taken seriously. But focus on you and assisting other loved ones under your care.
Common strategies recommended for dealing with a loved one who doesn’t want your help are as follows:
- Offer your ongoing support
- Explore whether your loved one is willing to accept the support of someone else
- Avoid guilt-tripping or shaming
- Maintain healthy boundaries
- Follow through with consequences when boundaries are broken
- Do not enable the addiction
- Do not enable any other self-destructive behaviors or those that may be harmful to others
- Do not blame yourself
- Accept that your loved one’s addiction is outside your control
- Engage in self-care4,5
- Work on your own issues with alcohol, drugs, or other problematic behaviors
- Speak with other trusted loved ones and/or a professional
- Attend support groups such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon
Following these recommendations will not guarantee any change in your loved one but will ultimately help you come to terms and move forward with a healthier life.
What Should I Do in an Emergency or Crisis?
In the event of an emergency or crisis you should always call 9-1-1 immediately. Every passing moment may mean the difference between life, death, or other serious consequences. This should be done regardless of whether your loved one agrees. If things work out, then there will be time to work through that later. The most important thing here is that everyone comes out of it alive.
There are other preparatory considerations to help in the event of an emergency or crisis. For example, if your loved one has an addiction to opioids, having naloxone on hand may help reverse overdose. If your loved one has any other serious illness that requires medication (e.g., pills, an injection), it should be readily available. This is helpful along with keeping the phone numbers of important contacts. Learning and becoming certified in CPR is also helpful.
Make Sure You’re Caring for Yourself, Too
Taking care of yourself during this time is so important that it has its own section in this article. For some this may be difficult. It may feel selfish to focus on yourself during this time, but your health is important first and foremost. You deserve happiness and health just like anyone else. The key to getting to this point, though, is not blaming yourself and accepting the situation for what it is. Again, you cannot make anyone else change.
Another take on self-care is that when you are in a healthy state you are better able to support others, including your loved one struggling with addiction. Remember that you cannot possibly give more to others than you have to give. If you are running at 20% capacity, you cannot possibly help as you likely intend. When we feel unhealthy, we become more easily frustrated, pessimistic, and exhausted.
Self-care for each person looks different, but the intentions are the same. Such activities should be healthy and enjoyable.
Common strategies for self-care include:
- Talking with a therapist
- Attending a support group
- Volunteering or partaking in advocacy work
- Speaking openly with loved ones about your experience and emotions
- Listening to music, reading a book, or watching TV
- Learning something new
- Spending time with friends and other loved ones
- Partaking in a hobby whether new or one from the past
- Engaging in physical exercise
- Eating healthy and trying new foods
- Getting a healthy amount of sleep
- Cooking, doing lawn work, or other household activities
- Traveling or attending events
- Pampering yourself at the spa or salon
What you do is up to you but do take this time for yourself. Even if your time is limited, a little something each day can go a long way.
For Further Reading
The following are helpful resources for anyone dealing with a loved one who has an addiction:
How to Get Help for a Loved One or Friend With an Addiction Infographics