Shocked. Angry. Offended. Heartbroken. It’s natural to feel these emotions when you suspect or discover a family member is abusing drugs or alcohol. When the initial wave of emotions wears off, though, it’s essential to rally the family and start working toward a solution.
It may help to put yourself in their shoes. The last thing you would want is to be abandoned by your family when you need them the most. Be available to them more than you ever have, as difficult as that may be. They need to know that you love them in spite of their habit.
Substance problems don’t pop up out of nowhere. They tend to develop out of stressful, confusing or troubled times. Our tendency is to lash out at a loved one who is involved with substances, which only amplifies the problem and makes things worse. So, rather than attacking your loved one or abandoning them, work to understand the root of the problem.
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, genetics account for up to 50 percent of the risk for substance dependence. Trace your family’s history to see what roles genes may play. After that, do your best to gauge the other influences in your loved one’s life: What is their school or work life like? Are they dealing with any relationship dramas? Are they battling health problems? You’ll likely be able to connect some of the dots and make a little sense of their substance abuse problem.
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, genetics account for up to 50 percent of the risk for substance dependence. Trace your family’s history to see what roles genes may play.
“Although this might seem selfish, I strongly believe that it is hard to be present for others and be able to make the best decisions possible if you are not ensuring that your own health needs are being met. Thus, eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising, and keeping up your doctor’s appointments — along with attending to all of your health needs — puts you in the best position possible.”
Keep in mind that you didn’t cause your loved one’s addiction. You also can’t control it, and you can’t cure it. Many parents make the mistake of absorbing blame for their children’s drug use, or assuming responsibility for their recovery. This can make matters worse and delay the healing. It also adds undue pain and suffering, and leaves you in unfit shape to properly address the problem. Maintaining your own well-being is paramount. If you are not taking care of yourself, you won’t be able to help your loved one on the path to recovery.
Through observing your loved one’s behavior, and talking with their friends or co-workers, you can hopefully get an idea of what substance they’re struggling with. Research the symptoms you observe, and try to understand the type of addiction they have. A marijuana addiction should be approached very differently than a cocaine addiction, for example. You may also choose to turn to a treatment center to get your questions answered.
Keep in mind the fragility of the situation, and how many other people are involved, when determining what role you should play in the proceedings.
Being bombarded from all sides about your substance problem is perhaps worse than not being approached at all. This runs the risk of sending somebody in an already fragile state over the edge. With that in mind, discuss the matter with the entire family before deciding to intervene.
Assign different roles for each member of your family, and figure out the best plan. You’re encouraged to sit down with a counselor or intervention specialist to talk about your loved one’s problem and how it should be approached. In some cases, families will ask a doctor to sit in with them during an intervention.
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There’s no such thing as a “perfect moment” to approach someone about substance abuse. In too many cases, families wait around for a perfect moment to arrive, and in doing so only delay their loved one’s healing. Once you make the decision to intervene, work with your family to determine the best time to do so.
There are different ways to approach your loved one. It depends on the situation, and to what you feel your loved one would respond best. It may be a full-on intervention, involving family, friends and a counselor. Or it may be as simple as a one-on-one conversation during a walk. Both approaches can be effective. Staging an intervention, as emotional as it can be, is often the first big step in the healing process.
It’s important to set boundaries on both sides of the family. This can be a traumatic time for everyone involved, as no family ever imagines being forced to face this type of issue. But in cases of substance abuse, setting boundaries in the beginning can help bring the family together again in the end.
You may need to lay out some strict rules. It’s easy to trigger an extreme reaction from someone simply by saying the wrong thing at the dinner table. Avoid bringing up the addiction at inappropriate times, or being insensitive to the pain that your loved one is clearly going through. Instead, be a friend to them and help them realize how much they are loved.
During the lowest of their lows, they may feel you are abandoning them by not covering for them. It’s often impossible for them to realize it at the time, but detaching yourself from their self-inflicted woes might be the most loving thing you can do. Following their treatment, they may thank you for taking a stand and not reinforcing their destructive behavior.
Establishing your role in a struggling loved one’s life can be tricky. It may take weeks or even months to strike the right balance of supportive yet detached, stern yet compassionate.
Addiction drives many families apart, and it’s not hard to see why. It takes a colossal amount of patience and, even with that, long-term recovery is never guaranteed. But providing the right support to your loved one as they decide to seek treatment can make a world of difference in their journey.
Once they commit to rehab, show them a ton of encouragement. Deciding to seek help as an addict can be immeasurably difficult decision; only about half of Americans who are addicted ever seek treatment. So if they’ve made it that far, let them know you support them 100 percent.
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Stand by them, and root them on as the treatment process progresses. Help them realize they’ve made the right decision. At the same time, try to avoid smothering them with attention. This can give them space and allow the healing to take its course.
The support community has been aiding families through addiction struggles for decades. Know that you’re not alone. If the anxiety caused by a loved one’s habit becomes too much, or you simply run out of answers, don’t hesitate to reach out and take advantage of the help that’s available.
Many substance abuse counselors specialize in the family dynamic related to substance abuse and addiction. Sessions with a family counselor can bring the family unit together and help ease their woes. This provides an organized forum for the various members of the family to voice their individual concerns, and discuss how their loved one’s substance problem has affected them personally. Working together with a counselor, the family can leave these sessions with a renewed perspective and motivation toward tackling any upcoming hurdles.
Not long after Alcoholics Anonymous was founded, a similar group called Al-Anon was organized for families of addicts. Following the 12-step model of AA, Al-Anon offers family members a supportive community of their own, and helps them work through the tumultuous times they’re facing. You can read more about the group, and locate meetings near you, at the Al-Anon website.