By: Mark O’Brien, Addiction and Recovery Expert
Perhaps this year more than ever, as we approach Valentine’s Day, we’re thinking about how our loved ones are doing amid all that’s going on in the world. It’s important to keep in mind the struggles of those facing addiction or managing their own recovery as well as friends and family who have someone in their life facing similar challenges. Maybe you’ve noticed they have been drinking more often or using drugs, or they’ve been in recovery but are suddenly falling into unhealthy habits.
Whatever the case may be, there are steps you can take to help a loved one struggling with substance use.
1. Look for signs and symptoms
While every person is different, and different drugs will have different physical effects on a person, there are some common signs to look out for:
Increasingly frequent drug or alcohol use or increasing tolerance for larger amounts of alcohol or drugs;
Problems at school or work, like absences or a drop in performance;
Physical health issues like weight gain or loss, lack of energy, sleeping too much or too little;
Changes in behavior and relationships with family and friends;
Secretiveness about where he or she goes;
Financial problems or unexplained requests for money; and,
Other unusual or unexplained changes.
2. Don’t wait too long to offer help
Substance use disorder is a chronic and progressive disease of the brain and it is not something we should be ashamed to talk about. There are different levels of severity, but we do know that treatment outcomes are better if someone gets help earlier in the progression of their addiction. If you’re worried about a loved one, friend or coworker, now is the time to act.
3. Be prepared to offer support and listen.
It can be hard to know how to start a conversation about addiction, but it is most important to remember you will get the best results by approaching this conversation in a spirit of caring concern rather than angry confrontation. It’s important to prepare ahead of time for the conversation, and be ready with specific examples of behaviors or signs that are causing your concern. You should also prepare to offer help if the person is ready for it.
Learn about addiction treatment options, and find resources available in your community. If your loved one is open to it, the first step in getting treatment will be to get an assessment. You might consider contacting your health insurance provider to find providers covered by your plan. In Colorado you can dial 211 and also find more information on mental health and addiction resources throughout the state here or on the U.S. Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration website here.
4. Set boundaries and be consistent.
Even though you’re worried about your loved one, and even if you handle the conversation perfectly, they may not be ready to change or even admit they need to change. One of the first steps in recovery from substance use disorder is for the person with an addiction to begin contemplating getting better. By starting the conversation, you may have helped your loved one begin considering changing their relationship with substances, so don’t be discouraged.
Another important step in preventing prescription drug misuse in particular is safely using, storing and disposing of medications. Never share medications with family members, and always keep prescription medications in a locked or secure place.
Remember, it’s not only okay to set boundaries around their substance use, doing so may help motivate them to change. You cannot control their decisions, and you are not responsible for fixing their addiction, but you have control over how you respond and interact with your loved one. While continuing to use positive communication with your loved one and affirming your concern and willingness to help, you can set boundaries that are fair to you and discourage their substance use.
Having a loved one with a substance use disorder can be stressful and feel isolating and chaotic, but you are not alone. Nearly twenty million Americans struggle with substance use disorder. It doesn’t happen overnight, but these steps are ones you can take to help your loved one and yourself.