One of the biggest misconceptions about addiction is that it’s some kind of a moral failing or a weakness and that the person with the substance use disorder (SUD) is very much in control of their condition. No matter how many sympathetic documentaries, movies or books or articles about addiction, how many famous people admit to having struggled with it, how understanding many people seem to be on social media—when it comes to real life, there’s still a lot of prejudice. And the biggest problem with prejudice is not even that it’s undeserved or unfair—it’s that it keeps people from getting the help they need. Many people with SUD are prejudiced against themselves and being surrounded by others who also don’t really understand what’s going on can only lead to more heartache.
I know it’s hard to love someone with addiction. But this is not about that. This is about how to love someone with addiction. How not to? Well, telling the person with SUD to “just quit” or “take care of it” or “deal with it” is probably more harmful than not saying anything at all. Getting angry is not helpful. And giving up on them before you even try to understand… is never helpful.
If you do care, if you love this person, you should probably get actively involved. Addiction feeds off of loneliness so for someone who wants to quit knowing that they have people in their corner wanting to actively help is wonderful—as in it can actually do wonders. Yes, I know, it can get frustrating and time-consuming and you might not even believe that addiction is not something a person can control, but if you’ve got the love, help in the way that’s practical. What do I mean by that? I’ve talked about this before, but perhaps number-one step is to educate yourself. There’s so much information out there, so much research… there’s really no reason not to learn about addiction if it affects your life. If your loved one had a chronic condition like hemophilia or recurring cancer, you’d probably try to learn about it as much as you could, no? I’ve made a similar argument many times, but I really cannot stress enough how uninformed so many of us still are about addiction. Since knowledge brings power, as the cliché has it, arming yourself with knowledge is the beginning, the fuel you’ll need to follow the next few steps.
The second step could be just talking to your loved one and letting them know that you’re there for them, and mean it. Ask what they need. Do they feel isolated? Do they feel overwhelmed? How can you support them? They might have a good idea of what they need exactly and will be able to tell you—this is better than assuming that you know what’s best for them. Listen, acknowledge and see if you can come up with a plan together. If a person with SUD wants to quit, you’re already ahead of the game, but wanting to quit and actually getting there is a bit tricky, which is why you’re asking those questions you should ask.
Third, come up with a plan. Decide if any medical help, an inpatient treatment, therapy, or meetings, or all four are needed, and make sure you’re there when those get implemented. Telling someone to just go to detox (and even kindly looking up the address for them) is not good enough—go with them, stay for registration and visit. If they decide to check out Alcoholics Anonymous or some other recovery venue, go with them for support. That way you’ll know better what they’re going through while trying to recovery and you’ll be able to understand it better and gain even more empathy. Again, this might seem frustrating and time- consuming but keep reminding yourself that this is all getting someone you love healthy and happy, and that it’s an investment—in your loved one’s better future and yours, by default. Practical, on-going help is way better than just letting someone know you wish them well. You know how nowadays everyone makes fun of that silly phrase “sending thoughts and prayers” that people use on social media when commenting on tragic events? Useless. Help lies in action, not in words.
On that note, fourthly: stay. This means, stick around for the ups and downs of recovery and help your loved one through the rough times and celebrate the good ones. No one is demanding for you to do this indefinitely and addiction can be as unpredictable as the weather but if you can stay for a while, if you have strength and resources to offer some practical, concrete help, please do—a kind gesture can sometimes save a life.
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