The theme of this year’s National Addictions Awareness Week, running November 20th to 26th, is A Community of Caring. Addiction can make the user and their loved ones feel very isolated and that’s why it’s so important to seek help and feel supported. Having people around you that love and care about you is essential for recovery from addiction, so in this article we’ll share tips, information and resources that will help you to support someone with an addiction.
What is addiction?
Supporting someone who has an addiction is easier when you understand what addiction is and how it affects a person. Generally, addiction refers to the problematic use of a substance (such as drugs or alcohol) or behavior (such as gambling), despite adverse consequences – socially, at work, or physically. The cause can be a mix of interwoven experiences, choices, and traumas - so it is wise and helpful to educate yourself so you can approach your loved one from a place of compassion and understanding.
Substance misuse can affect anybody - whether its alcohol, prescription medication, or illicit drug use, people from all walks of life can develop substance dependencies. The first thing to remember is that you shouldn’t make assumptions about someone’s readiness for recovery, and you can’t force someone to stop. You can, however, support and encourage them, although ultimately they will have to make the decision to change themselves.
(For more information on the signs, symptoms, and pathways to recovery, check out this recent blog post).
What’s the best approach?
We all use substances (food, sugars, carbs & fats, for example) to varying degrees to shift our mood or to comfort ourselves. Therefore, when supporting someone with an active addiction, remember that using substances helps them cope in some way with their life – in other words, there’s an incentive for them to continue using.
Telling someone that they’re destroying their life and future with their substance misuse, punishing them by becoming angry, cutting them off, or isolating them is counter-productive. Instead, the user needs to see the benefit of sobriety, that they’ll have support during difficult days, and the focus should be on enabling them to see that their life can be better and more fulfilling without substances.
One of the most important factors that helps someone recover is knowing that people care about them, that there are people in the world who want to see them succeed and thrive. They need your support, encouragement, and solidarity, even if they push you away.
How can you help?
Here are a few key steps to take towards being a good support:
Educate yourself. Understanding addiction can help you make sense of the behavior and suffering of your loved one, helping you to support them compassionately.
Have a conversation. Speaking to someone about their addiction isn’t easy and it requires a lot of patience and compassion. It’s normal that you might feel angry, upset, shocked, or disappointment, but if you want to support someone, put those feelings aside and listen to your loved one without judgment.
Here are a few communication tips:
Let them know how much you care about them and that you’re worried about their well-being
Be honest about how you feel but avoid blame. Remember that the person is not to blame, but the disease of addiction
There’s no need to tell them how bad a particular substance is for their health – they already know that and it hasn’t helped them to stop
Shaming, punishing, or becoming angry at someone who has an addiction isn’t going to help them to recover – in fact, it can make things worse
Use appropriate language that reduces instead of increases stigma. See the free resource Overcoming Stigma Through Language.
Be prepared for denial. They might refuse to speak to you about their drug use and become angry and defensive. Many people with addiction feel too ashamed to admit they have a problem (even to themselves) so they might downplay or deny their addiction. If this happens, it’s important not to argue with them about it.
Here’s how to approach denial:
Let your loved one know how much you care about them and try to stay calm and compassionate throughout the conversation
Prepare a list of incidents that show how their behavior has changed and that they’re addicted. Here are some common signs of addiction
Use ‘I’ statements e.g. ‘I was worried’ rather than ‘you’ statements, e.g. ‘you made me worried’
Provide examples of how their addiction is affecting their life, including their career, relationships, and other commitments
Don’t expect them to turn around in one conversation. Be patient and allow them a little time and space to accept the truth. Keep an ‘open door’ and revisit the conversation another time. Your words might have a bigger impact than you realize
Set Healthy boundaries for self-care. It can be extremely distressing when someone you care about suffers from an addiction and it can take a serious toll on your own mental health. Setting boundaries can help you to cope better and could encourage the user to seek help. When you put boundaries in place, you should discuss this with your loved one. Tell them what you need, and follow through – and they may test your boundaries, so it’s important you stick to what you’ve said.
Boundaries can include:
Not allowing them to use drugs or have drugs on them when they’re with you
Not lending or giving them money
Walking away if they treat you disrespectfully
Not taking on any of their responsibilities like paying bills, lying for them if they’ve missed work or school or are in trouble with the law
Remind them and yourself that you’re doing this to help them, not to punish them
The bottom line
The best thing you can do is to offer your support. Let them know how much they mean to you, that you’ll be there for them and that they are not alone. You can speak positively about the future; ask them what a good future would look like to them and discuss ways they might be able to achieve that. Your loved one needs to see a reason to stop, to have the incentive to be sober. But remember that it’s not your responsibility to ‘cure’ their addiction. Encourage them to seek help and don’t give up on them – that’s all you can do.
What support is available for people with an addiction?
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) run 12-step programs and have helped millions of people recover from addiction. Certain meetings allow a support person to join so if you feel up to it, you could support them to attend a meeting. AA: https://www.aa.org/ NA: https://canaacna.org/
List of addictions treatment helplines in Canada https://www.ccsa.ca/addictions-treatment-helplines-canada
Canada-wide resources and information for people who need help with addiction: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/get-help-problematic-substance-use.html
What about you?
There are support groups and resources available for friends and family members of people with addiction. Have a look here:
Resources for parents - https://www.farcanada.org/family-support/support-yourself
AI-Anon runs meetings for friends and family members of alcoholics - https://al-anon.org/
Help for parents and guardians: Parents Like Us. The Unofficial Survival Guide to Parenting a Young Person with A Substance Use Disorder - https://foundrybc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/parentHandbook_6x9_screen_sept7.pdf
For more information on National Addictions Awareness Week and to find out more about how to help your loved one, visit the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.