A guide to raising addiction treatment
Having a friend, family member or loved one who’s struggling with addiction can be a uniquely scary, anxious and lonely experience. It’s likely a position you never expected to be in, and for which you find yourself entirely unprepared.
Many of us will find it daunting to have a conversation broaching the subject of addiction. We may feel as though we’re intruding, or be fearful of an angry response. But if approached correctly, these conversations can be turning points in the addiction cycle. At the very least, they can help us set healthy boundaries and ensure we are not enabling an addiction.
Below, we’ve outlined 10 tips for maximising your chances of success, and avoiding common pitfalls:
1) Center yourself, understand your aims
Make sure you’re clear-eyed about your aim and ensure your approach and responses play a constructive role in achieving that outcome.
If you enter this conversation in a moment of anger, frustration or stress, things are likely to veer off course. Your loved one may shut down, or shut you out, before you are able to share your perspective. Similarly, if a person is heavily under the influence, you’re not going to be able to have a productive conversation, so wait for another time.
Your aim is likely to depend on a few things, including how serious the addiction is, the type of relationship you have with them, and whether or not this is the first time you’ve raised the issue:
Aims may include:
- Letting them know that you’re aware of their addiction
- Helping them understand their behaviour or addiction is escalating
- Helping them understand the impact of their behaviour
- Helping them understand the need to seek professional support
- Setting clear boundaries in your relationship
- Helping them overcome fear and shame related to seeking support.
2) Be prepared for a range of outcomes
To help maintain your cool and to ensure your responses are as rational, thoughtful and helpful as possible, you should take a moment to think through the range of responses you may receive. They may not be ready at all to hear what you have to say, may be gripped by denial and excuses, or might be aware of the issue and open to your support to work through it.
Think about how you will feel if faced with an angry or distressing response, and plan a few go-to phrases which can de-escalate or pause the conversation. Make sure you have a friend, therapist or healthcare professional you can confide in afterward to debrief and level-set.
If you find yourself struggling with intense feelings of frustration, anxiety, powerlessness, you should also consider seeking support for yourself as well. One of the first things we teach in our Family Support Workshops is that to be functional support networks, we need to be supported ourselves.
Note: If you’re dependent on the individual for housing or financial support, or if you fear there may be a reasonable risk of violence, you should stop and reach out for help and support first. You might seek advice from the Australian Domestic Violence Hotline on 1800 737 732 or the Kids Helpline (which offers support for anyone under 25) on 1800 459 975.
3) Plan your language, avoid accusations
Broaching a conversation about addiction can be confronting, so it’s important to think carefully about our language to avoid derailing the conversation or veering into argument. Here are some potential ways to broach the subject and keep the conversation moving:
- “I wanted to check in because I noticed…”
- “Have you noticed that you’re drinking / using X more than usual?”
- “When did this start, do you think there was something that prompted it?”
- “Do you feel like you can stop? Could you try to stop for 48 hours or a week?”
- “Have you thought about seeking professional help or going to an Alcoholic/Narcotics Anonymous meeting?”
- “What scares you when you think about stopping / getting clean?”
It’s important that your loved one sees that you are speaking to them in good faith and are not trying to make accusations or guilt-trip them. This risks provoking defensiveness and shutting the conversation down. A great way to frame our speech is to use “I” sentences instead of “you” sentences -- to share observations rather than make accusations.
Say: “I’ve noticed you’ve been drinking more, and I’m concerned about the way it’s impacting the family and our relationship.”
Not: “You’ve become an alcoholic and you’re destroying our family and letting the kids down.”
Say: “I feel like this is getting worse and I worry it’s only going to be harder to stop if we don’t act now.”
Not: “Your behaviour is getting impossible, you can’t function properly and it feels like you’ll never stop this.”
4) Engage with compassion
Remember that you’re there for a two-way conversation, not a lecture. Much of your engagement may be geared towards listening, responding and demonstrating compassion. People in the grips of addiction can often feel intense shame, unworthiness and hopelessness, take care not to reinforce this in your responses.
Use phrases like:
“I want you to know that I love you, care for you deeply, and want you to get through this.”
“I know that you can get through this, I know that even if you feel hopeless and don’t believe it, you can find a way out of this.”
“You’re strong enough to get through this, you are loved, and you are worthy of help to work toward a better future.”
5) Monitor your responses
As well as listening, you should also be aware of your own responses – both words and body language. Slipping into anger or raised voices isn’t going to help, and may just give your loved one an excuse to shut down. Open body language which leans in to listen and displays no judgment is ideal. Folded arms, scowling and scoffing is to be avoided.
One method of avoiding anger is by redirecting it. As frustrating as your loved one may be, remember that you’re angry at the addiction cycle and the substance/behaviour itself, and that your anger is motivated by care for your loved one and how it is hurting them.
Be wary of the temptation to bargain, lecture, cast blame, use guilt or make threats, none of which will be productive. Setting boundaries and outlining consequences for behaviour is important, but we shouldn’t confuse this for threats against a person if they don’t take action.
6) Avoid reinforcing roadblocks for recovery
Most people suffering addiction will tell you that fear and shame are often key roadblocks to reaching out for help, so it’s important we don’t reinforce them.
A person may think they can never live without the addiction; they may fear the thoughts and feelings they’ve been numbing with the addiction; they may fear the unknown of a treatment center; and they may fear they will fail. A person may be ashamed of the losses they have sustained through their addiction; they may be ashamed to be labeled an addict; they may be ashamed of letting down others; and they may fear that seeking help makes the problem ‘real’.
Even if you’re frustrated, avoid venting your anger with statements like “I can’t deal with this,” “you’re pathetic,” “you’re a junkie,” “this is hopeless,” or “you’re letting everyone down.”
7) Know the difference between support and enabling
It’s important to know the difference between supporting a person with an addiction, and supporting the addiction. Making excuses, accepting excuses, minimizing the problem or participating in the addictive behaviour are clear examples of enabling an addict.
If you’re struggling to articulate your support, or find yourself accused of being unsupportive, try a variation of: “I support you and I support everything I love about you and I will support you seeking help to end this addiction, but I do not support you taking drugs / gambling / etc. I don’t support the impact it is having on our family / relationship / friendship.”
8) Have support options ready
While a loved one may be tempted to say they can end the addiction on their own, the truth is that professional support is often necessary, especially in resolving underlying issues. Ending substance use can also trigger strong withdrawal symptoms, and a medically supervised detox may be required.
If your loved one gets to a point where they are open to seeking help, it’s important that you can outline their options immediately. Being able to make and agree on a clear plan will be important.
9) Offer to participate in recovery
The thought of going to group therapy, a psychologist or an inpatient program alone can be intimidating, so you can offer to participate in some way in your loved one’s recovery plan.
You might offer to drive them to an AA or NA meeting and have a meal afterward, you might offer to join them for a family or group session with a therapist, or to drive them to their inpatient program.
The South Pacific Private residential inpatient program is unique because we embed a participatory family, friends and relationship program within our treatment plan – so if your loved one is admitted, you’ll likely be joining us for a few days as well. We also offer a number of other workshops and sessions for friends, partners and families.
10) Keep expectations realistic
While ideally you’ll at least make some progress toward your goals, you may find yourself spinning your wheels – and you should be prepared for this.
Your loved one may be overwhelmed and need time to process things, in which case you can pause the conversation and offer a breather. If they ask for a delay, it may be an excuse to avoid the issue, but may also be because they need the space to make a decision or feel backed into a corner.
If things are going nowhere, you can end the conversation by asking what options they will consider, and what action they’ll take. If you encounter outright rejection, it may be that they’re just not ready to face reality. There may be little you can do to shift this.
It’s important for you to understand that you do not own any failure. You are not responsible for any other person’s actions or decisions. No matter how much you love someone or care about them, it’s never enough if they’re not ready for help. Be aware that when gripped by addiction we may say things which are manipulative and hurtful. No matter what happens in your conversation, you should not let the experience make you feel unloved, unworthy or hopeless.
11) Make sure you have support as well
Having a loved one gripped by addiction or a mental health issue can put you at risk of unhealthy behaviours as well – including codependency, addiction or anxiety. At such a stressful time, boundaries can be difficult to set, and even more difficult to hold to.
Recognizing the burden addiction can place on loved-ones, South Pacific Private offers a one-day Family Day Program. Being able to speak with professionals and those who have gone through this before can be a deeply rewarding experience. The cost is often completely covered by private health funds and direct payment is also possible. Learn more >>
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