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In Over Your Head: 6 Important Lessons When You Love an Addict

Too many people are dying from accidental overdose in America today. If you even suspect that a loved one might be using, educate yourself on addiction. Intervene early and often. "Help" is letting the addict know that you care that they get treatment, today.
02/19/2016 05:48pm ET | Updated February 19, 2017
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I receive calls all the time from desperate families. They want to know how to get their loved one into treatment. They want to help but don't know what to do. There is hope for these families. Learning about addiction and recovery can make you more confident in conversations on the topic and a better advocate if your loved one seeks treatment. Here are six things you should know about addiction that will make you a more capable champion of the people in your life struggling with addiction.

1. Treatment is not your job. The guilt of losing a loved one to addiction is overwhelming. Parents, siblings, and spouses often ask what they might have done differently to save their loved one. There are no answers, for the most part because treating the addict is not your job. Your role is to love and encourage treatment, while setting good boundaries. "I love you and will drive you to treatment anytime of the day or night, but I will not drive you to the dealer's house or give you money." "I love you and want to know how I can help you find the right treatment program for you." That's the job of the family. Meanwhile, seek support for yourself from those who are familiar with addiction and its effects on families.

2. Naloxone (Narcan) saves lives. If you have a loved one using opioid painkillers or heroin, get a prescription (if needed where you live) for naloxone and know how to use it. Naloxone can revive many who have overdosed, enough to get them emergency medical care. It saves lives. You must have this on hand if anyone in your household abuses opioids. Advocate that first responders in your community also carry this drug.

3. Define "help." We all want to help those we love. Family conversations about drug abuse often end with the declaration that the addict needs "help." Of course they do; they're dying. But what is help, exactly? What substances your loved one is using, how much, for how long, their background including history of trauma or mental health issues, and willingness to stop using all play a role in determining what type of treatment will make the most impact on the addict. Needless to say, finding the right facility and treatment program can feel overwhelming. Does your loved one have insurance? What will it cover? Who will take care of the addict's children? And, the addiction problem doesn't belong solely to the addict. The entire family will need assistance, both getting the addict appropriate care and also learning how to change the family system so that the addict can be supported in recovery.

4. Addiction is hard wired into the brain. One of the most important and overlooked reasons why addicts encounter difficulties when trying to enter and maintain their recovery is the way drug addiction impacts the brain. Over years, addicts' brains grow accustomed to a cycle of drug-seeking behaviors followed by the reward of dopamine and other euphoria-inducing chemicals that flood the brain following drug use. Substance abuse is perceived by many to be the result of poor decision-making skills, but in reality it is better described as a trained response to a series of external triggers including stress, anxiety, and frequently trauma. Addiction is more than a series of individual choices; it is a sustained pattern of brain functioning. Top-notch treatment will address this brain dysfunction.

5. Everything has to change. Chances are good that an addict who has been using for years has built a life around using. Where they live, who they're friends with and how they provide for themselves are likely to some large extent defined by their addiction. Not only will the addict in recovery need to develop new coping skills to handle the everyday stressors that are a normal if uncomfortable part of life, they will need to seek out new environments, including possibly changing jobs, making new friends or even moving, in order to disassociate with the people, places and things that once drove them to use. Recognize that you too will have to change your relationship with the addict if you are to be part of his/her life in recovery.

6. There has to be a reason to get clean. Addicts generally despise themselves, for the harm they have done to themselves and others. The best response to self-loathing is love; your job is to love the addict in your life. This does not mean that you should support their drug-seeking behaviors. It is not love to allow them live with you because you don't want them to be homeless or paying their cell phone bill so they can call you -- that same phone they use to call their dealer. Those actions are self-serving. Love is seeking assistance for yourself so that you can go on with your life and show your loved one that life is worth living. Love is telling the addict in your life over and over that you believe in them. They need a reason to go to treatment. The one thing you are most well-equipped to do is let them know that you love them and need them in your life and will continue to love them despite the fear they have of treatment and recovery.

Too many people are dying from accidental overdose in America today. If you even suspect that a loved one might be using, educate yourself on addiction. Intervene early and often. "Help" is letting the addict know that you care that they get treatment, today.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.