There’s nothing worse than that feeling of helplessness watching someone you care for destroying his or her life (and the lives of those around them) through addiction to alcohol, drugs or a combination of both.
Take heart knowing that you CAN do something to help. It won’t be easy on you or on the addicted person. But you have it in your power to help that person turn his or her life around. The major challenge is, they have to want it as much as you do.
How do you know you’re doing the right thing?
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that the person you’re concerned about has a problem. But where do you start?
They say knowledge is power. In the case of addiction, it’s your most vital weapon to arm yourself for the struggle you both will face. Simply caring is not enough; before you can even consider helping an addict, you need to educate yourself.
Understanding what addiction entails and what makes an addict tick will give you the tools you need to assist with recovery.
Treating addiction: Does one size fit all?
In a word: No. Just as every person is different, every addict will respond differently to efforts to encourage recovery. There are also so many different types of addiction. From alcohol to “established” drugs like heroin and cocaine to an ever growing range of “designer drugs” (synthesised from a bewildering array of chemicals) and prescription medications – the list is seemingly endless!
However, certain symptoms of addiction apply whatever the drugs and whoever is abusing them. And there are certain ways of approaching addiction that can be effective across the board.
Inside the head of an addict
The visible effects of addiction are all too common: Typical defining symptoms of addiction include, using drugs to avoid withdrawal symptoms; high tolerance to the substance; neglecting family and work responsibilities; decline in physical appearance; poor health and continued abuse even when the addict is aware of the damage it is causing to himself and to others.
That’s the stuff that other people see. But what is actually going on inside an addict’s mind?
The most important thing to remember is that, for an addict, the drug is the most important thing in their lives. For sober, rational people this is easy to forget. It is a mistake that frequently gets in the way of dealing effectively with addiction.
The chemical changes in an addict’s brain that create dependency override that person’s personality completely. The constant craving for another fix means they will do anything they can to satisfy it at any cost. As they spend all their money on their addiction, they devise ways to finance their habit – stealing or scamming from strangers and loved ones alike. They become master manipulators, using emotional blackmail (playing the victim) or making promises they do not intend to keep, simply as a means to an end.
Understanding this basic truth is critical if you want to help an addict with recovery. Addiction is a sickness, not a fair reflection of a person’s true self. Try to avoid being judgemental – an addict is not bad or evil; he or she is sick and needs your help.
Where to start?
The first step is to approach the person one-on-one and ask if they are open to talking about their addiction. Try to find a quiet time when you can be alone together with no distractions. Tread softly. It’s important to explain that you are motivated by concern for their health and happiness. Avoid blaming, arguing or getting angry. If they are receptive, ask them if they would be willing to seek professional help. If they become intimidated and defensive, don’t push it. Instead, discuss with other concerned family members and friends how you can plan an intervention.
Staging an intervention
For an addict who is in denial about their condition, or doesn’t want to face it, an intervention can be the tipping point that changes their mind about seeking help. But it can also be very intimidating – if the person feels that people are ganging up in judgement, they will likely resent the situation and reject the offer. Plan carefully who you will invite. A small group of caring people who can explain their concerns compassionately, patiently and supportively. Seek assistance from an experienced professional who can offer advice and preferably be in attendance at the intervention. Make sure you have a list of available treatment options on hand, so that the addict can make a decision right there, before he changes his mind.
What if the addict refuses treatment?
The nature of addiction is such that many addicts will find an excuse not to address the issue. They might deny their addiction, saying that they can deal with it themselves or try to put it off for a later date. The reality is that an addict has to accept responsibility for his or her own recovery. Often it will take a dramatic event or change in the status quo to convince an addict that treatment is the only option.
This is where you have to be stronger than ever.
So-called “tough love” is draining, but it may be necessary to shift the addict’s mindset.
Start by setting boundaries and, most important, follow through on agreed consequences when these boundaries are crossed. For example, if the addict turns up drunk or high, they will not be allowed to stay at home, or have their car taken away. Extreme, but not uncommon consequences might include a court order, or legally denying an addict parental visitation rights. The consequences have to matter enough to the addict to force re-evaluation. And, most important, they cannot be empty threats. They must be followed through to have any impact.
You will also have to make a conscious effort to quit enabling the addiction. Enabling is any behaviour that supports the continuation of the addiction. Whether it’s lending money or paying an allowance, providing free accommodation, or making excuses for the addict’s behaviour. As far as you are able, prohibit access to alcohol or drugs.
It won’t be easy. The addict will blame you and will resort to all kinds of emotional manipulation, playing on your feelings of love, fear and guilt. But you must remember that it is the addiction talking, not the person. He or she needs your strength; you must stand your ground.
Prepare for the worst – look after yourself
That’s not the same as giving up. On the contrary, being realistic is the best way to prepare for success down the line. Addiction is no picnic. It’s tough on the addict and it’s tough on you. Recovery is even harder. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that can and probably will turn your lives upside down and leave you both feeling emotionally drained and physically exhausted. It will place terrible pressure on your relationships, your work and your finances.
The effects of addiction for others are as difficult for others to live with as it is for the addict. Seek professional advice and assistance from support groups. Your life is precious too and you deserve to live it without the shadow of addiction dragging you down.
Don’t give up
Once your loved one has accepted the need for treatment, welcome the fact that he or she is making an effort to beat addiction. Be encouraging and gentle – it’s a terrible illness they are fighting. Multiple relapses are common. But, take strength in knowing that you can both get through it – and when you do, it will be worth every minute you put into it.
Ask for the help you need
For advice and support, contact Houghton House during office hours on 011 787 9142
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Article written by Alistair Mathie