If you love someone with a drug or alcohol problem, you may be feeling a range of emotions, such as concern, anger, or frustration. Substance misuse can have negative impacts on not only the person who is using, but their friends and family as well. This article will help you understand more about substance use disorders, how to encourage your loved one to seek the help they need, and how to support them in their recovery.
Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease otherwise known as a substance use disorder (SUD).1 When someone has an SUD, they can’t simply stop using drugs or alcohol through willpower alone, even if they want to.
It may sometimes be hard to tell when someone’s drug or alcohol use has become a problem. Some signs to look for include:10
Signs your loved one’s substance use has turned from a problem into an SUD include having at least 2 of the following in a 12-month period:1,2,11
While it can be helpful to know the signs of an SUD so you can support your loved one, it’s important to accept what you can and can’t control. For example, you can’t force someone to admit they have a problem or seek treatment. Even if they’re not ready for treatment or you don’t know what to say, you’re doing enough on your end simply by offering support and showing your love and concern.
When talking to your loved one about their substance use, you should be aware that there may not be a “right time” for the conversation. Your loved one might not want to talk about it, but that doesn’t mean you should put off the talk. Starting the conversation is the first step to getting help.
First, it’s a good idea to wait until your loved one isn’t under the influence. Otherwise, they will probably be less willing to hear your concerns. Choose a quiet moment in a private setting with few distractions, such as at home or on a walk. You might be nervous or unsure, but that’s normal and completely okay. Remember to stay calm, be patient, and take a few deep breaths to help yourself stay on topic.
Express your concern and be direct. Focus on your experiences, feelings, and observations. Use “I” statements that let them know what you’ve noticed, such as how their drug or alcohol use is affecting your relationship or other areas of their life. Some examples:
Remember that just as your concerns are important, your loved one’s feelings are valid too. They may be defensive or upset, but it’s important to remain calm and not get into an argument. Rather, you want to keep the focus on helping them. Listen to and express empathy for their feelings and concerns. You could say something such as, “I hear you. I love and care about you. How can I support you?”
Let your loved one know that it takes a lot of courage and strength to admit to a problem and seek help, and that SUDs are treatable.4 You might suggest that they talk to their doctor, who can assess the problem and help them find treatment. You can also help your loved one find treatment options. Offer to go with them to any appointments or attend family or group therapy, if they want that.
Your loved one may not accept your help right away. Keep reaching out. Let them know you are here to listen and to help however they need.
Try to avoid accusations or referring to your loved one as an addict or alcoholic. The preferred terms are “someone with a substance use disorder” or “someone who misuses alcohol or drugs.”3
Also try to avoid lecturing or criticizing. No one likes to be told what to do, and having an SUD doesn’t make them “wrong” or “bad.”
Don’t be confrontational. The types of “interventions” that you see on TV are rarely effective.4 They can even backfire and lead to anger or refusal to get treatment.4 Instead, try to imagine how you would like to be talked to if you were in your loved one’s shoes. Focus on getting them to at least talk to a doctor if they won’t talk to you.
Don’t blame your loved one for the problem. Remember that they have a disease that’s as real as any other chronic disease. So just as with other disease, they need treatment to get better.1
Caring for someone with an SUD can be challenging. So it’s important to take care of yourself as well and avoid enabling. Enabling means any behavior that protects your loved one from the consequences of their substance use. Examples include:5
Instead of enabling, set healthy boundaries. A boundary is a rule or limit that helps protect you and lets others know what you will and will not tolerate in a relationship. Use “I” statements when letting your loved one know your boundaries. Some examples of good boundaries include:
Remember that if you’re exhausted, it’s going to be harder to support your loved one. You may want to seek counseling for yourself so that you can process your own feelings. This could be one-on-one therapy, group counseling, or family support groups, such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon.
If your loved one is willing to go to treatment, you can help them research treatment programs. If your loved one refuses to go to treatment, you could try learning the CRAFT approach. This training teaches family and friends good strategies for helping their loved ones get treatment.7
Common SUD treatment types include:8,9
No one type of treatment is better than others. The best treatment for your loved one depends on different factors, such as how bad their SUD is, whether they have other physical or mental health issues, and their insurance plan. The most important thing is that your loved one gets some form of help.