Helping Someone with a Drug Addiction

Shot of a friendly young hiker helping his friend climb onto a rock on a mountain trail.

Understanding the Impact of Drug Abuse on Family and Friends

Watching someone you care about struggle with drug addiction is incredibly distressing. It can take a heavy toll on your mental and emotional well-being. Whether the person is a close friend, spouse, parent, child, or other family member, their addiction can consume your life, piling stress upon stress, straining your patience and finances, and leaving you with feelings of guilt, anger, fear, frustration, and sadness.

You may worry about their whereabouts, risk of overdosing, or the damage they’re doing to their health and future. Financial strain from supporting them, covering legal troubles, or previous failed attempts at recovery can add to your burden. You might find yourself shouldering their responsibilities, neglecting other relationships, and feeling overwhelmed.

As despairing as you may feel, you’re not alone. Drug abuse and addiction affect families worldwide, causing heartache and upheaval. While you can’t force someone to overcome their addiction, your love, support, and patience can be crucial in their recovery. These guidelines can help you support your loved one’s efforts, set necessary boundaries to preserve your own health, and find stability for both yourself and your loved one.

Understanding Your Loved One’s Substance Abuse

People start using drugs for various reasons. Some turn to substances to cope with emotional pain from mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or PTSD. Known as self-medicating, some may be aware of their mental health problems but unable to find healthier coping mechanisms, while others remain undiagnosed and use drugs to manage specific symptoms.

Others may use drugs to change how they feel, fit in, or alleviate boredom or dissatisfaction with life. Some drug abuse starts with a doctor’s well-intentioned prescription to treat a medical condition. For example, many people prescribed opioids for pain relief end up misusing the drug.

Not everyone who uses drugs develops a problem. Genetics and environmental factors play a role. Some people can use substances without detrimental effects, while others quickly spiral into addiction, feeling powerless to escape.

Recognizing Drug Abuse in a Loved One

It’s not always easy to recognize drug abuse. Signs can be subtle, and symptoms can vary depending on the drug. In teens, drug abuse can resemble normal adolescent moodiness. It’s the adverse impact on their life that signals a problem.

Signs of Substance Use Disorder:

  • Problems at work, school, or home. They may appear high more often, miss work or school, neglect responsibilities, and encounter relationship difficulties.
  • New health issues, such as changes in sleep patterns, weight fluctuations, glassy or bloodshot eyes, and cognitive problems. Depending on the drug, they may sniff frequently, have nosebleeds, or exhibit shaking.
  • Changes in mood and behavior. They may be secretive, lie about their activities, or become quick to anger, especially if confronted about their drug use. They might lose interest in hobbies, become withdrawn, and neglect personal hygiene.
  • Recurring financial problems. They may run up debts, seek loans, or steal money to buy drugs.

Drug Paraphernalia:

  • Small plastic bags, paper wraps, and cling film for storing drugs.
  • Rolling papers, pipes, bongs, or pierced bottles and cans for smoking.
  • Burnt foil, spoons, and syringes for heroin use.
  • Frequent prescription renewals or bottles of medication prescribed for someone else.

How to Talk to Someone About Their Drug Abuse

Starting a conversation about drug addiction is challenging. It’s important to approach it with compassion and understanding. Remember, drug abuse often stems from trying to cope with painful issues or mental health problems. Criticizing or shaming them will only push them away and might worsen their substance abuse.

Tips for Effective Communication:

  • Choose the Right Time: Talk when you’re both calm, sober, and free of distractions.
  • Express Concerns Honestly: Share your worries about their well-being and provide specific examples of their drug-related behavior that concern you.
  • Listen: Even if you disagree, listen without arguing or contradicting. Your loved one needs to feel heard and supported.
  • Offer Help: Provide information about resources they can turn to for help, such as helplines, doctors, counselors, or support groups like SMART Recovery or 12-step programs.
  • Be Prepared for Denial: They may become defensive or angry. Don’t argue; revisit the conversation later.
  • Avoid Lecturing or Threatening: Making emotional appeals or threats will likely increase their guilt and reinforce their substance use.
  • Be Patient: Expect to have multiple conversations about their drug use. Recovery is a process that takes time.

Supporting a Loved One’s Recovery

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to overcoming addiction. Recovery is often a long and complex journey. While you can support and encourage your loved one, they must take responsibility for their recovery.

Steps to Support Recovery:

  • Adjust Expectations: Recovery looks different for everyone. Be flexible and supportive of your loved one’s journey.
  • Encourage Seeking Help: Offer to help them call a helpline or accompany them to appointments or support meetings.
  • Address Co-Occurring Issues: They need to find healthy ways to cope with any underlying mental health issues.
  • Help Plan for Triggers and Cravings: Assist them in developing strategies to manage cravings and avoid triggers.
  • Encourage New Interests: Support them in finding hobbies and activities that add meaning to their life and help them avoid old habits.
  • Accept Relapse as Part of Recovery: Encourage them to recommit to sobriety and learn from setbacks.

Setting Healthy Boundaries

It’s easy to fall into the trap of enabling a loved one’s addiction by shielding them from consequences. Enabling behavior can perpetuate their addiction and harm your well-being. Establish boundaries to hold them accountable for their actions.

Examples of Boundaries:

  • No Drug Use in the Home: Prohibit drugs, paraphernalia, or other drug users in your home.
  • No Covering Up: Don’t lie or make excuses for them, take over neglected responsibilities, or bail them out financially.
  • Share Financial Responsibilities: Require them to pay their share of bills and expenses.
  • Respectful Treatment: Insist they treat you with respect, even when high.

Taking Care of Yourself

Supporting a loved one with addiction can be emotionally and physically exhausting. It’s essential to take care of yourself to avoid burnout.

Self-Care Tips:

  • Find Support: Talk to trusted friends, family, or support groups for comfort and reassurance.
  • Manage Stress: Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, and practice relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation.
  • Practice Acceptance: Focus on what you can control and let go of what you can’t change.
  • Maintain Other Interests: Pursue activities and relationships that bring you joy and fulfillment.

By taking care of yourself, you’ll be better equipped to support your loved one through their recovery journey.