How to Support a Loved One Who Has a Substance Use Disorder
Living with or loving someone with a substance use disorder (SUD) can be stressful, painful and unpredictable. SUD can impact your home life, your finances, and your family. A substance use disorder is a treatable mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior, leading to their inability to control their use of substances. If someone close to you is dealing with addiction, you are probably riddled with fear and anxiety, as you do not know what the addict is going to do next. You might think to yourself: Will they overdose, cause a car accident, gamble their life savings, steal from me? Although it is not your responsibility to “fix” the person and it is definitely not your fault, you could potentially fall into traps that you think will help the person, but could ultimately cause them more harm than good. The following steps are intended to help you understand and cope with another’s SUD. It is important for your mental health to take these steps to support the person on their journey.
Put yourself first
One of the most important things you can do is to take care of yourself. Living with or loving an addict is very stressful, which can lead to resentment, which could lead to you not wanting to help the person who has caused so much damage to your life. It is imperative that you take care of yourself by exercising, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and finding a support system of your own. If you cannot cope with your own stresses and difficulties, you will not be able to properly assist a person with SUD.
Learn about the person’s disease
"Educating yourself about addiction helps break down the stigma and fosters empathy, improving your ability to be there for your loved one.” – Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration
People use substances for different reasons. They might have depression, anxiety or PTSD and they find that using substances helps them feel more at ease. Others might use substances to change the way they feel, such as to fit in, or because they are bored or unhappy with their lives. The root cause of their addiction can have a significant effect on their future recovery, but for now, spend your time learning more about the drug of their choice. If they are using opioids or heroin, learn about overdose and when to seek emergency services. If they are drinking too much alcohol, learn about withdrawal and the effects of alcoholism.
Do not blame them, lecture them, judge them or have negative conversations with them. This can lead to the person withdrawing and using more. Remember that addiction is not a choice; it’s a disease. They did not ask to be an addict.
Talk about it
Some people who live with or love a person with SUD try to hide it from the rest of the world, because they feel ashamed, guilty, to blame or embarrassed. You will not gain anything by keeping your feelings to yourself. You might talk to friends or other family members in similar situations. You can get individual counseling that will help you understand the many facets of SUD. Most importantly, counseling will help you realize that the addiction is not your fault, and you cannot control it.
Help, but do not enable
“Enabling maintains the addiction, while helping supports recovery. Know the distinction to provide the right kind of support.” – psychcentral.com
There is a difference between helping a person and enabling a person. When you help someone, you do something for a person who cannot help themselves; for example, you help your friend when she is sick by delivering her a home-cooked meal. When you enable someone, you are doing something for a person who is totally capable of doing it themselves. Many people fall into the enabling scenario without even realizing they are doing it. For example, say your spouse is addicted to alcohol. You find yourself buying the booze, setting the alarm to make sure they get up in time for work, making excuses for their behavior. This is enabling. When you enable an addict, they do not have consequences for their actions, and they will never learn to change their behavior. You can help them instead by taking them to a therapist or an AA meeting.
If you find yourself enabling a loved one, try to set healthy boundaries, ones that hold them accountable for their actions through establishing limits to what is and what is not acceptable behavior. Some healthy boundaries include no longer buying or giving them money for alcohol or drugs; they are not permitted in your house under the influence, and if they break this boundary, you will not let them in your house or you will have to call the police to remove them from your home; you will no longer set their alarm, cover for them for missing work; you insist that they always treat you with respect. Once these boundaries are broken, you must follow through. If you do not enforce the boundaries, their destructive behavior will continue.
Set realistic expectations
Having one serious conversation with a loved one about their use of substances will probably not be enough for them to realize that they have a problem. You will most likely have to have several difficult conversations. Do not expect them to keep their promises, as their disease will take over. The boundaries you established will most likely be broken. It is important for your mental health to stay calm when you have setbacks. Do not react with pity, anger, disgust or understanding.
It helps to speak with other people who are in a similar situation as you. Groups, such as Al-Anon, which focuses on alcohol addiction, and Nar-Anon, which focuses on prescription and illegal drug addiction), can help you learn how to cope with your loved one’s disease.
The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration has several resources on all types of mental health topics and addictions, including, but not limited to, gambling, sex addiction, PTSD and anxiety. The SAMHSA national helpline offers confidential free help: (800) 662-4357.
The Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program provides confidential assistance to those in the legal profession who have a substance use and/or mental health disorder. (ohiolap.org / (800) 348-4343).
The Judicial Advisory Group (ohiolap.org/judges) provides confidential assistance to judges and magistrates.
As you navigate your way through this challenging time, you have probably asked yourself, “Why is this happening to me?” You might even blame yourself. Instead of searching for these answers or trying to assign blame, learn to accept the things you cannot change and focus on the areas of your life that you do have control over. Find other areas of your life that are rewarding, such as hobbies, work, family and social activities.
SUDs are complex issues that have varying levels of severity. You can encourage your loved one to get appropriate treatment, but you must take care of yourself first and foremost.