“Can we talk?” How to speak to a loved one in need of treatment for substance abuse
Substance abuse and dependence are problems that have a tremendous impact on everyone involved in the person’s life, from spouses, siblings, parents and children to colleagues, co-workers, bosses and friends. If you suspect that someone you love has a problem with alcohol or drug abuse, it may be difficult to know where to start, what to do and how to find resources to help.
Recognizing substance abuse
The first step to getting your loved one help is recognizing whether or not a problem with substance abuse exists. If you suspect that a family member or friend is abusing alcohol or drugs, look for some of the warning signs. Someone abusing alcohol or drugs may exhibit the following signs and symptoms:
- Temporary blackouts or amnesia (i.e., memory loss)
- Arguments or fighting with family members or friends
- Irritability, depression, angry outbursts or mood swings
- Bloodshot eyes, flushed skin and changes in pupil size (i.e., larger or smaller than usual)
- Changes in appetite, weight and sleep patterns
- Changes in physical appearance, hygiene or grooming habits
- Unexplained personality and/or attitude changes
- Unusual smells on breath, body or clothing
- Lack of motivation, lethargic or spaced out
- Tremors, trembling hands, slurred speech or impaired coordination
- Unexplained need for money, borrowing or stealing money and financial problems
- Secretive and/or suspicious behaviors
- Drinking alcohol or taking drugs to relax, deal with problems or feel normal
Most of the time, family members and friends can easily recognize these signs of alcohol or drug use. However, sometimes it may be difficult to determine whether a more serious problem exists, especially when the individual attempts to hide or conceal the substance use. It is important to recognize problems with alcohol or drugs as early as possible, so that you can reach your loved one before it becomes an addiction. Substance abuse can eventually spiral out of control, leading to addiction and other detrimental consequences on an individual’s relationships and physical and mental health.
Taking care of yourself
Initially, it may be difficult to understand why your loved one has developed a problem with alcohol or drugs, which can contribute to painful and conflicting emotions, such as anger, frustration, guilt, helplessness, embarrassment or shame. It is normal to be upset about your loved one’s substance abuse and the impact that is has on your life.
First, and foremost, it is important that you take care of yourself. Recognize when your loved one’s behavior is affecting your life. Instead of dealing with the negative emotions and impact of your loved one’s substance abuse alone, seek out and talk to someone you trust, such as a close friend or another family member, for support. If you are unable to talk to someone you know, professional and self-help resources are available online and in the community for people affected by substance abuse and addiction.
Talking to your loved one
Talking to someone about his or her drug or alcohol use can be difficult, but the approach you take when talking to your family member or friend can make it easier to get the person the help he or she needs. It is important to recognize that you cannot control or change his or her behavior. Substance abuse and addiction are conditions that affect the brain, which means that more often than not, a person will need to go through professional treatment to stop drinking or using drugs to get better.
Prior to talking to your loved one, research nearby treatment facilities that specialize in treating people with addiction, so that you are prepared to provide your loved one with options if he or she agrees to receive treatment. Be prepared that your loved one may initially feel threatened or defensive when you ask them to stop drinking or taking drugs. While you are talking with your loved one, try to be as understanding, nonjudgmental and open-minded as possible.
Having a direct and heartfelt conversation with your loved ones may be just what they need to recognize that they need treatment. Use some of the following tips when talking to your loved ones about their alcohol or drug use:
- Listen to what they have to say and give them the opportunity to talk about their alcohol or drug use and how they feel about it
- Offer your encouragement, help and support for them to seek help
- Avoid talking to them when they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs; people who are under the influence will not be able to look realistically at their situation
- Avoid using judgmental words to more effectively open the doors of communication
- Share your concerns; let them know the impact that their alcohol or drug use is having on others’ lives
- Be prepared; research different treatment options nearby that specialize in substance abuse and addiction treatment, and understand that they may make excuses for their behavior or be in denial when you ask them to seek help
- Educate yourself so you can better understand substance abuse and addiction and the ways that you can offer your help
- Remember your goal: to get them the help they need, not to argue.
- Avoid blaming, criticizing or yelling, as this can lead to arguments and fights, which are counterproductive and can make it less likely for your loved one to agree to treatment
Unfortunately, your loved one may be unwilling to go to treatment and get help, despite your best intentions. It can be frustrating to watch them continue the cycle of substance abuse. In such cases, a professional intervention may be a useful tool for helping a loved one who is refusing or resisting help. During an intervention, a team comprised of family members, friends, co-workers or others close to the individual, approach their loved one and ask them to get the help he or she needs, which is done with the help of a trained professional.
The trained professional not only attends the intervention and facilitates the conversation between the loved one and the intervention team, he or she also meets with the team before the intervention. Prior to the intervention, the trained professional educates, role plays various scenarios that may occur and teaches the team different methods of communication and other strategies to use during the intervention to make it more likely that the person will decide to go to treatment.
Following these suggestions may be helpful for getting your loved one the help he or she needs. The Sovereign Health Group provides behavioral treatment programs for substance abuse, mental illness and co-occurring disorders, which are individualized to meet our patients’ specific needs. If you are concerned about your loved one’s substance abuse or dependence and would like more information about Sovereign Health’s treatment programs, please contact our 24/7 helpline for more information.
Written by Amanda Habermann, M.S. clinical psychology, Sovereign Health Group writer