There’s no question about it, addiction is a difficult topic to discuss. It is a chaotic disease that affects both the person struggling and those around them. When confronted with the fact that a loved one is struggling with addiction a person can feel a multitude of emotions and while it is normal to feel overwhelmed, it is also important to remember that there is hope for recovery and there are ways you can help your loved one. The most important place to begin is to talk to them.
When communicating with a loved one around your concerns it’s important to do it in a way that allows them to really hear what you are saying. This means considering a few do’s and don’ts in your style and timing of the conversation.
Don’t ignore the issue.
Pretending an addiction doesn’t exist does not help your loved one make changes. Those struggling with addiction are prone to putting themselves in risky or dangerous situations, not to mention the negative physical effects addiction to substances can cause. Addiction is a progressive disease that does not get better on its own. Ignoring it only condones the behavior.
Do be clear and upfront.
The best way to speak to someone, in general, is to be straightforward and honest with them. This is not different for someone struggling with an addiction. Be clear in what you want to communicate to them and don’t be shy about expressing it. They may have feelings or a negative reaction to what you have to say, but that does not mean you shouldn’t say it. Those feelings and reactions can be part of paving the way to recovery.
The definition of enable is to “give someone the authority or means to do something”. When we talk about enabling in the sense of addiction we mean providing another person space or means in which to continue with their destructive behaviors. Ways in which we enable might include:
Prioritizing the needs of the individual struggling over their own. It is one thing to care for loved ones and quite another to enable by taking those caring gestures too far. If someone has all of their needs taken care of by another person, whether that is giving them money, providing housing, bailing them out of jail, etc., they have little reason to want to change their own behaviors.
Keeping quiet and avoiding confrontation in the face of troubling behaviors. Enablers often find it difficult to express emotion in these situations, particularly when there are negative repercussions for doing so. Those struggling with addiction can become defensive or angry when confronted so enablers will frequently avoid having difficult conversations out of fear of their loved one’s response.
Lying to try to cover up the chaos addiction brings. Some enablers will try to present a cool exterior and lie about or make excuses for the destructive behaviors of their loved one. They may feel it is easier to “fake it” than to be honest with others about what is really going on.
Do hold boundaries.
Boundaries are important in every relationship. When someone in our life has an addiction, it can feel like an uphill battle to hold healthy boundaries with them, but it is a necessary step to take if you want to do everything you can to assist in them getting healthy. This is an important practice to keep for the sake of your relationships and for your own mental health and wellbeing. It is okay to say “No”.
Don’t give ultimatums.
Issuing a final demand to someone who is not ready for change will likely result in them rejecting the terms of that demand. There is a fine line between making threats toward someone and discussing expectations. It can be difficult to not feel the need to make strong statements in hopes of change in our loved one, but it is always important to remember that an ultimatum may have the opposite result of what you are hoping for.
Do take action in some way.
Taking some type of action to better the situation. This can me attending support groups or meetings, getting into your own therapy, reaching out to loved ones for support, and researching treatment programs for your loved one. Even if they are not ready to change, it doesn’t mean that you can’t start that process.
Don’t discuss concerns when they are under the influence or emotions are high.
Nothing meaningful or helpful can really be discussed when someone is under the influence or the parties involved are upset. No one thinks clearly when they are feeling overwhelmed by their emotions. It can feel uncomfortable to hold onto what you want to say for a later time, but waiting for the right moment to discuss serious issues is important.
Do take advantage of a time when you are both clear headed.
There’s never a “good time” to have a difficult conversation, but there are better times than others. Waiting for a moment when your loved one is sober and both of you are calm can make a real difference in how the conversation goes. If you find yourself in a day or moment that things seem to be going really well it is great to take advantage of that moment and have a meaningful conversation. Many people shy away from this because they don’t want to rock the boat or ruin it when things are in a good place. Remember that your ultimate goal is to have more and more moments where you feel you’re both in a good place together and to do so you need to be able to express your concern.
Don’t blame them or yourself.
To make sense of a difficult situation we often times search to pinpoint a reason or person to blame. Who better to point the finger at than the one who is struggling with addiction? It can be so easy to blame your loved one for having an addiction. After all, they are the one engaging in unhealthy behaviors. The other most common place to focus blame is on ourselves. Perhaps we see our loved one as a victim of circumstances and we are the ones who didn’t try or love them enough to prevent addiction from taking hold of their life. Placing blame on them or yourself doesn’t improve the situation and only works to add to the negative emotions already being felt.
Do educate yourself.
Addiction is a disease and the more you educate yourself the better you will understand why your loved one is struggling. The more you understand how addiction works and how your loved one may be feeling, the easier it will be to speak to them from a place of care and support. As with any other struggle in life the goal is to help them feel supported, understood, and that they are not alone in trying to break the cycle of addiction.
Author: Bridget Pileggi, MSMFT, LMFT – Footprints to Recovery – Clinical Director