Patti Waits, M.Ed., LPC, LICDC (ADAMH Consumer and Family Advocate)
There are many reasons why you may struggle while trying to help the addict in your life:
They may not agree that they have a problem.
They may not want to change what they are doing.
They may fear consequences e.g., losing their job, going to prison.
They may feel embarrassed, and not want to discuss it with you.
They may feel awkward about discussing personal issues with a professional.
We recommend that you get help for yourself first because being in a relationship with a person who has an addiction is often stressful. Accepting that you are going through stress and need help managing it is an important step in helping your loved one, as well as yourself.
Although you may feel tempted to let your loved one know that their addiction is a problem, and that they need to change, the decision to change is theirs. They are much more likely to be open to thinking about change if you communicate honestly but in a way that does not threaten your loved one.
Other behaviors that do not seem to help and that should be avoided if possible are:
Nagging, criticizing and lecturing the addicted person.
Yelling, name calling and exaggerating (even when you are stressed out yourself).
Engaging in addictive behaviors yourself, even in moderation (they will think you are a hypocrite).
Building trust is a two-way process. Trust is not established by putting up with bad behavior. People with addictions rarely change until there is some consequence to their behavior. Don’t try too hard to protect the addicted person from the consequences of their own actions (unless it is harmful to themselves or others, for example, drinking and driving).
What About Treatment?
The treatment process will vary according to the needs of the addict Not all addicts have to go into a hospital or inpatient setting. There are different levels of care and if possible, an assessment by a doctor an addiction counselor should be done. The most important thing to remember about treatment is that the addict should be the one who asks for help and who is responsible for following up with treatment. The addict may or may not want you to participate in the education and/or family counseling part of treatment. If you are asked to participate, and you are able, this can be very helpful to the addict and to the family.
If you are involved in your loved one's treatment:
- Be honest about your feelings, what you want to happen, and what the addiction has been like for you.
- Do not blame, criticize or humiliate your loved one in counseling. Simply say what it has been like for you.
- Do not be surprised if your loved one says that things you are doing are contributing to their addiction.
- Try to listen with an open mind.
- If you want them to change, you will probably have to change too, even if you don’t have an addiction.
- If you show you are willing to try, your loved one will be more likely to try as well.
If your loved one has treatment alone:
- Respect their privacy in everyday life. Do not inform friends, family or others about your loved one’s treatment.
- Respect their privacy in therapy. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t push for them to tell you what happened.
There are many different approaches to the challenge of how to help addicts, but remember, change does not happen overnight.
Never hesitate to get treatment for yourself and for other family members. You will have your own issues that need examination. It will be important for you to get education and support for yourself and for others in the family who are being effected by the addiction. You can seek treatment regardless or whether or not the addict is ready to get help.