Talking about substance abuse is tricky, and it’s a challenging subject to broach for a few reasons. Firstly, a person suffering from substance abuse issues has to contend internally with the social stigma of being an addict. They are dealing with the devastating effects of internal conflict, as their addiction challenges their identity, self-esteem, beliefs, and values.
Secondly, they have to face the stigma externally in the judgments, opinions, and actions of others who are either misinformed about the nature of addiction or lack the empathy to imagine what addiction is like. Addicts face a tough road toward life in recovery and will need the support of friends and family.
But how do you support your friend or loved one without making the problem worse or pushing them away? There are several ways you can let your friend or loved one know you are there for them without crossing healthy boundaries or enabling their substance abuse further. But first, consider the following question.
Where Are They On Their Path?
This post assumes that the person you are concerned for has already made their struggles with addiction public, and they are either considering seeking help or attempting to live a life in recovery. If you are unsure whether or not a person has problems with addiction, this post is not intended for you. Check out this resource on how to tell if a friend or family member might have a drug addiction.
The Importance of Trust, Honesty, and a Two-Way Dialogue
Trust can be difficult to establish with a friend or family member who may have lied to you about their addiction in the past. You might be hesitant to give them your trust again despite how eagerly they may be trying to earn it.
However, you ought to consider how trust is a two-way street. Have you acted in ways that might make it difficult for your friend or family member to confide in you? Have your actions got in the way of establishing a healthy, honest line of communication?
When talking with your friend or family member about addiction, here are some things to avoid:
Don’t Lecture, Listen.
Avoid lecturing your friend or family member about your thoughts, feelings, and opinions regarding drug addiction. If you haven’t been an addict yourself, well-intentioned lectures on the dangers of drug addiction will come off as superficial and arrogant.
Instead, listen to their stories and their struggles. No pithy anecdote about addiction you recite will effectively speak to their individual story. Give them the time and space to talk, and only when they are finished, use your time to discuss how their addiction affects your relationship with them.
Be Honest, Not Hostile.
It’s important to let the other person know how their addiction has affected you and your relationship with them. This is a necessary part of establishing trust. How you go about communicating this, though, will affect how they interpret and understand it.
Here are some quick tips on effective communication:
Use “I” statements, not “you” statements.
“I” statements are effective communication tools for delivering criticism in a constructive way that is less hostile and aggressive than “you” statements. An effective “I” statement might be, “I feel more distant from you when you are high,” as opposed to, “You run away from me by getting high.” The “I” message gets the same point across—drug use negatively affects their relationship—without going on the offensive.
Switch Negative Statements into Positive Statements
Think of ways to take the negative things you might want to say and switch them into positive statements. Instead of “You are awful when you are using,” say, “I love spending time with you when you are sober.” This gets the same point across without being antagonistic and hostile.
Check Your Body Language
Not all communication is verbal. Make sure you are an open communicator by checking your eye contact, posture, and facial expressions. If you appear angry or closed off, it may get in the way of effective communication.
Offer to Help Without Exceeding Your Boundaries or Theirs
It’s crucial that you only offer the help you can actually afford to give. Don’t make promises that you can’t live up to — this is part of establishing trust. You may want to help more, but can you really watch their kids while they are in rehab, for example? If you can help, then certainly do help, but don’t offer that which you cannot provide. It will destroy the bridge of trust you have established.
Ultimately, You Can’t Save Them, But You Can Help Them Save Themselves
Offer to help in the little ways that show you are invested in their recovery. You can take them to meetings, therapy, methadone clinics, or a safe injection site. You can offer to help watch over their pets or children (if you can!) while they undergo rehabilitation. You can be sober with them and spend valuable time simply being in their lives.
No, you cannot save someone from drug addiction, but you can give them 100 reasons why they ought to save themselves.
Jenn Walker is a freelance writer, blogger, and dog enthusiast living unapologetically in recovery in Southern New Jersey.
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