It is heartbreaking to watch someone close to you self destruct using drugs and alcohol. Substance users’ moods may be erratic and go from one extreme to the other. They make promises they never intend to keep and their life may be a whirlwind of chaos and crisis. There are times when you think that perhaps they are truly changing as they seem to put their life back on track, only to watch them fall time and again. Maybe they have come to you in the past and admitted there is a problem only to deny it when you bring it up later.
While it is true that all substance users are different, the experiences of close family and friends of the substance user can be very similar. Addiction professionals, family and friends may call you an enabler because you have provided money, food, shelter, cared for the substance user’s children, bailed him/her out jail and generally continued to love and support the substance user regardless of his/her behaviors. Some addiction professionals may go so far as to tell you it’s your fault that the substance user is still using. Strangely these same professionals, who are more than willing to place the blame on you for the substance user’s behaviors, claim that the substance user is diseased and does not have control over their own behavior. This concept, of course, is illogical, and does nothing to help the family and substance user.
Many addiction treatment providers will recommend that you confront the substance user head on. Many will suggest bringing in an interventionist to do a family intervention. These interventions are designed to manipulate and coerce the substance user to go into a treatment program, which is usually chosen by the interventionist. Traditional interventions are confrontational in nature, and the risks of alienating the substance user and pushing him/her farther away are great. What addiction treatment providers will not tell you is for the majority of people these confrontational methods do not work.
So what is the answer? How should you approach your loved one? You know your loved one better than anyone, so put yourself in their place and think, if I had this problem, how would I want to be approached? Talk to those closest to your loved one and ask them how they would like to be approached if they had this problem.
When approaching a substance user there is a tendency to become overly dramatic by saying things like, “You’re killing yourself!” or to become angry and tell the person exactly how their behavior has caused harm to you and the family. Avoid these conversations as they are not helpful and not entirely accurate as they are based solely on your opinions, perceptions and interpretations, and provide fodder for argument. The truth is your loved one already knows that taking drugs is a risky behavior that may result in death; but so is driving or riding in a car, flying in a plane and eating fast food, so this is a poor argument at best. Your loved one already knows and has probably heard many times how they are self-centered, how their behavior hurts those around them and that you are angry; this didn’t matter to them before and most likely still doesn’t.
The only truly effective approach is one where you take all others out of the equation; you leave your own judgments and resentments at the door and you focus solely on finding out exactly what your loved one thinks, feels and wants for his/her life. Many times substance users feel as if no one listens to them or truly understands them, and oftentimes they are right.
When family and friends have dealt with a substance user for many years it is common for the family and friends to feel hurt, rejected and angry. There is a tendency to stop listening to the substance user and instead resort to nagging, criticizing and making demands. Family members may use money, food, shelter and care as a means to manipulate the substance user to change, but it is usually the family who ends up being manipulated by the substance user and then feels more hurt and angry. It is difficult to know how to act, and what to do when a substance user comes to you for help. However, when you begin to think of substance abuse as a choice and stop thinking of it as an illness, you will be in a much better position not only to help the substance user, but to help yourself and your family as well.
The one immutable truth is that all people have free will. They can think, feel, and do anything they want. People do not do anything without their own willingness and consent to do it. Substance users that continue to use substances do so because they want to – regardless of what they may say to you. The most effective way to help them is to first acknowledge the possibility that this is the way they want to live. As soon as the opportunity presents itself ask the substance user this simple question, “Are you happy?”
If your loved one says that they are happy with their life, you may want to press them further, being cautious not to judge or give away your position. Seek to understand what they find appealing about their lifestyle. Ask questions and really begin to listen to what they have to say. Allow them to ask questions of you and be willing to answer honestly and openly. This simple conversation is the beginning to building, or rebuilding, a trusting relationship. Without this trusting relationship you have little chance of being able to help at all.
Let your loved one know that you care; you are there to help them and will always be there to help them. Lead by power of example ensuring that you are happy by making healthy and positive choices for yourself. Keep in contact with your loved one, reassuring them that life can be wonderful for them too, and that you will help them to attain it when they are ready. And when they are truly ready you will know because they will be willing to accept your help on your terms, not theirs. If they are still making demands of you and telling you what kind of help they are willing to accept from you then they are not looking to change; but rather they are still looking for you to help them to continue in their current lifestyle. Then you must make the choice on what help, if any, you are willing to give. If your goal is to persuade them to change, then in this case perhaps no amount of help is appropriate. But ultimately, you must do what you feel is right. Whatever you choose to do; it is important not to base your own personal success and happiness on their success and happiness. If you do, you may never truly be in a position to help them at all.