You want to help, but how do you do it?
For someone living alongside someone using drugs or with an alcohol problem, the urge to assist can lead to poor choices that can cause harm and decrease their chances of successful recovery.
With education, understanding and firm boundaries, you can be part of the support network that is so important to someone seeking to free themselves from dependency on a substance as a coping mechanism.
Avoid these common mistakes
At Help Me Stop, we often see the same patterns and choices in the friends and families of those we help. These people all want to help their loved one address their drug or alcohol use, but through poor judgement and decisions end up causing them more harm than good, often leading to arguments, resentments and the individual using more drugs or alcohol.
If you want to help a loved one struggling with drink or drug use, please read and avoid the following actions.
Don’t make it about you
The loved ones and friends of some with problematic alcohol or drug use often feel powerless and frustrated. What can they do better? How could they improve themselves to give better support? What are they doing wrong?
This is emotionally draining and guilt-inducing for the person struggling with the problem. Please be aware that, ultimately, you cannot take responsibility for the choices of another. The person struggling with their drink or drug use has to own this and accept responsibility for their use, and they too must own recovery from it.
Don’t punish them
Out of a desire to help, it’s common for those close to someone with a drink or drug problem to penalise them.
This rarely helps but, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set boundaries. For most people struggling with drug and alcohol problems, being penalised is not the decisive thing that will make those problems disappear. They often need support and connection more than at any other time in their life, and pushing them away and punishing them will make them feel wretched and guilty, which will in itself feed into the cycle of their substance use.
Empathy allows for a caring, understanding and empowering attitude toward your loved one’s struggles. It promotes their inherent human right to autonomy and personal responsibility. The goal is to help your loved one come to the decision of accepting they have a problem with drugs or alcohol – and that they need to do something about it.
In this way, the best approach is to:
- Keep conversations generalised and open-ended rather than accusatory. Avoid attributing blame or putting them on a guilt trip
- Walk away from a conversation around their drug or alcohol use that is getting heated rather than arguing
- Avoid criticism
- Demonstrate concern
- Don’t give solutions when you haven’t been asked
Don’t cushion them
Although we just covered the importance of not punishing the person with the problem, it’s just as important for you not to enable their behaviour. This is commonly a consequence of having not established firm boundaries and can lead to a situation where your attempts to support the individual actually helps to sustain their substance use. An example of this would be repeatedly bailing them out financially when they have spent all their money on substances already. Remember, setting financial boundaries won’t cure their substance problem – but they will protect you. Just because your loved one has a substance problem, it does not mean you are not entitled to protect your mental health, your physical well-being and your finances. This may mean tighter controls on your behalf on any joint accounts and even the possibility of setting up your own separate account where your money can go into.
This principle is important, but it isn’t easy to act on in reality. Despite this, there may come a time in your relationship with a substance using individual where the most loving and supportive action you can take is to do nothing.
No lies, excuses or cover-ups
Setting a clear boundary that you will not lie, excuse or cover up the consequences of their use sends a very clear message about their personal responsibility. If they are hungover and aren’t going to work, then they will have to phone in themselves. If they miss a family occasion or other form of gathering due to their substance use, they will have to provide their own reasons for not attending. You should never lie on their behalf; alcohol and drug use thrives on chaos and lies. Setting boundaries that will help to remove you from such chaos will force your loved one to take ownership of their actions and behaviours.
Don’t expect immediate change
Real recovery from drug and alcohol use can take years. It’s a game of inches rather than yards, with relapses being a very real danger that is difficult to avoid. If you want to support a loved one who is struggling with drug and alcohol use, it’s vital you respect the fact that their recovery will not happen overnight.
To achieve sobriety, drug-free status and lasting recovery takes a profound shift in the habits and behaviours and the individual’s perception of themselves. It’s a lengthy process, with rehab programmes drawing on the benefits of therapy, group work and individual sessions to change how someone using drugs and alcohol views and understands their behaviour and earlier life. It’s important you respect this and avoid allowing any frustration to jeopardise your support of your loved one.
Don’t turn on yourself
It’s not easy to support someone with a drug and alcohol problems. It takes commendable strength, patience and understanding to be there for them as they battle their demons. It’s OK for you to feel negative emotions such as frustration and anger, and it does not mean you’ve failed or are failing.
From the outside, the picture of drug and alcohol use is confusing. It can be demoralising to see a person we love repeating the patterns of behaviour that seem to so obviously harm them, and it can sometimes feel impossible for change to happen. These are valid frustrations and while it’s important not to allow yourself to believe them, it’s similarly important to allow your anger and frustration to be observed within yourself without judgement.
There are support services to help families and loved ones while they got through this. Here are some of them:
We hope this helps
Chris Cordell*, Help Me Stop’s General Manager says “The world of drug and alcohol treatment can seem vast. The team at Help Me Stop have years of experience in drug and alcohol treatment and will be more than willing to discuss your personal circumstances. Whether you are wondering how to get someone into treatment, or how to help a loved one with a drink or drug problem, you can feel confident that there are options and that you are doing the right thing. And with treatment now available online, a person looking to conquer their substance misuse doesn’t even need to leave their home.”
Getting help for a loved one can potentially be a life-saving event, making sure that you are prepared and have all the bases covered will make the difficult journey to recovery just a little bit easier. If you’d like to speak to the Help Me Stop team at no obligation, we’re right here and happy to do so. You can call us directly on 0208 191 9191 or use our contact form to get in touch. Take care.
*Chris is a senior associate member of the Royal Society of Medicine, Certified International Recovery Specialist, and a member of the International Society of Addiction Medicine.