How to Help a Loved One Struggling with Addiction

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Depending on the severity of your loved one’s problem, it can be easy to overlook the signs of addiction.

Symptoms will vary based on factors like substance of abuse, amount and frequency of abuse, and pre-existing mental and/or physical conditions. Although the outward signs of addiction tend to become more pronounced as the severity of the addiction increases, some people can remain highly functional throughout. This can make it difficult to identify the problem until it is too late and the addict begins to incur serious consequences.

If you think your loved one might be suffering from addiction, you’ll want to look out for the following signs:

Psychological Changes

A person suffering from addiction may seem like they’ve become an entirely different person. They may be experiencing drastic mood changes, become withdrawn and secretive and experience severe bouts of depression or anxiety. They may also exhibit paranoia, aggression, and abrupt anger. Their reactions to situations may seem severe and unbalanced.

Behavioral Changes

Addiction can take over a person’s life, causing them to neglect things like jobs, family, and hobbies. You may notice your loved one has stopped showing up for work, attending family gatherings, and has withdrawn from things they used to enjoy. They may let their bills go unpaid, let their home go uncleaned, and let relationships fall apart. Your loved one may have started getting into legal trouble and exhibitting risk-taking behavior like intoxicated driving. You may also catch your loved one frequently lying about their activites or wherabouts. When a person is abusing substances regularly, they begin distancing themselves from anyone who doesn’t also use, or who may disapprove of their use. Because the priority becomes getting and using as much of the drug of choice as possible, the addict will not want to be around anyone who may interfere with this. Your loved one may also withdraw from family and friends in order to get as intoxicated as they want, without anyone observing them in that state. It is likely they feel shame about the situation and will avoid social situations as a result.

Physical Changes

Addiction can cause rapid weight gain or loss depending on the drug of a choice. You may also notice your loved one has stopped practicing good hygiene, skipping showers and laundry and looking disheveled. They may appear extremely fatigued, puffy, and perspire heavily. You may also notice sores, bruises, or “track marks”. Lack of sleep may cause dark circles and pale complexion.

If you have noticed extreme changes in your loved one that you suspect may be the result of addiction, you will want to get them help as soon as possible. However, it’s important to go about this process in a way that is healthy for both you and your loved one.

Do's and Dont's of Helping an Addicted Loved One

Addiction has often been described as “the family disease” as it tends to have serious and far-reach effects on the whole family. An individual suffering from addiction often brings crises and drama to their families and loved ones, with each member handling the situation differently. Some family members will become enablers, often covering for the addict and getting them out of predicaments and consequences of their drug abuse. This can often delay the addict from seeking help for their problem, as they are able to avoid serious consequences with the help of enablers. Other family members may take a more reproachful stance, expressing anger and resentment toward the addict, and assigning blame. This can push the addict away from the family entirely, as to avoid any confrontation resulting from their addiction. Some family members may be in denial, unable to come to terms with their loved one’s addiction problem, creating an environment where members persist in pretending that everything is fine. These are all natural reactions to a loved one’s addiction, but they create dysfunction in the family and cause long-term damage to the family unit. Having an open discussion about the problem will help the family work together to address the issue, and may encourage the addict to accept help.

Don't Assign Blame

There are many factors that contribute to addiction, but anyone can find themselves struggling with it. Genealogy, family history, social background, environment, mental and physical health conditions, economic status, and cultural factors can all contribute to one’s predilection toward addiction but the important thing is that no factor excludes someone from addiction. It can happen to anyone. It may be comforting to assign blame to a friend, another family member, or society at large for your loved one’s addiction. However, doing so may only serve to alienate your loved one and create more animosity in an already tense environment. You will also want to avoid things like reprimanding and shaming your loved one.

Practice Empathy

In order to effectively reach your loved one who is struggling with addiction on an emotional level, try communicating from a position of empathy. Come to the understanding that no one hopes to become addicted and if your loved one was able to stop by themselves, they likely would have. Addiction is usually a symptom of a larger, more intricate problem of maladjustment to life. They may have began using drugs or alcohol as a means to cope with deep internal struggles or bury uncomfortable feelings. A person suffering from addiction is often deeply ashamed of their behavior and may continue using to avoid confronting that shame and guilt. They may also be in extreme fear of judgement and abandonment because of their addiction. It is most helpful to approach them with love and support for their situation. If they are open to sharing the struggle with you, reflect their feelings back to them to indicate that you understand the position they are in. Practicing empathy does not mean you have to “baby” or enable your loved one, you can still acknowledge the effects of the addiction on yourself and other family members. However its important to understand that the addict is also in pain, as this can help them feel less alone in their struggle and help them open up to accepting help.

Don't Take on the Problem Yourself

When addressing a loved one’s addiction, it’s important that you don’t put responsibility for the problem and its outcomes on yourself. You did not cause the addiction nor can you force your loved one to address it. You may want to “save” your loved one, in the way that you might save someone from a burning building. But, addiction isn’t like a burning building. Addiction is like a room your loved has locked themselves into, from the inside. They remain there out of fear, guilt, shame, and the enormous physiological effects of addiction. You cannot force them to accept help for the situation, but you can show them options that will put them on the path out of addiction and into recovery. But you will have to accept that the outcome is not on you.

Get Educated About Addiction

Educating yourself on addiction and the addiction treatment process will better equip you to approach your loved one about their struggle. They are likely well aware that they have a problem, and while it may be tempting to appeal to their emotion about how their addiction is affecting you and other family members, it will be more useful to instead convey your understanding of the problem and share some hope with them in the form of options for recovery. There are many online sources about addiction that can help you develop a detailed understanding of what your loved one is going through and your effort in this area may open their mind to accepting help. Here are some great sources to start with:

American Psychiatric Association

National Institute on Drug Abuse

Give Them Options

At this point, you will want to make sure you have researched treatment options for your loved one. The typical approach to addiction treatment involves 3 steps:

1. Detox – This is the process of removing harmful substances from the body. Depending on the drug of choice, Supervised Detox is highly recommended. Detoxing from substances like alcohol, opiates, and benzos can bring about dangerous and sometimes life-threatening symptoms and is best done under the supervised of trained addiction professionals and medical staff. Detox can be Medication-Assisted, meaning certain medications are temporarily administered during the detox process in order to manage withdrawal symptoms and keep the patient comfortable. Learn more about Detox here.

2. Residential Inpatient Rehab – During inpatient rehab, your loved one will reside in a facility for approximately 30 days, where they will attend specialized groups, receive one-on-one counseling, and tackle their problems using evidence-based, individualized treatment in a therapeutic setting. Inpatient rehab is a great tool because it removes the addict from their using environment and the stressors of everyday life, allowing them to focus on themselves and their treatment. Many treatment facilities also offer family services, so that you can also be engaged in your loved one’s recovery from addiction. Learn more about Inpatient Rehab here.

3. Aftercare – The final step in the treatment process is what happens after your loved one leaves inpatient treatment. It’s important that they remain engaged in their recovery, as treatment is not a cure for addiction but a path out of it. Attending Outpatient treatment groups, 12 step meetings, and maintaining social relationships with other people in recovery will help your loved one maintain their recovery. It’s also a good idea for them to ease back into their daily life slowly, so as not to get overwhelmed. Maintaining open lines of communication with them about how they’re feeling about their recovery will also help keep them from slipping back into isolation and old habits.

If you have any questions about the treatment process, addiction, and recovery please call Pathways Recovery Center at (626) 515-6424. We are available 24/7 to assist you or a loved one with addiction and help you find treatment options that will work for you!

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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