Seeking treatment for substance use disorder can be painful and challenging. Here’s how you can support your loved one.
Those closest to you often want to support you in hard times as much as they can. And for someone living with substance use disorder, or addiction, this may mean convincing them to get help.
Substance use disorders can be painful and are also very common. More than 100 million people are estimated to have alcohol use disorder, over 22 million live with marijuana use disorder, and almost 30 million are affected by opioid use disorder.
The process of recovery can be difficult. Challenges exist for both those living with substance use disorder and their loved ones.
There is a difference between using and misusing substances.
People can use substances casually and safely. But when someone misuses a substance, they may be using it in an inappropriate or harmful way.
For example, drinking wine with friends might be considered using substances, but taking prescription drugs outside of their prescribed usage or drinking alcohol excessively could be classified as misuse.
Likewise, these terms describe distinct experiences and cannot be used interchangeably:
- Addiction: Repeated substance misuse with harmful consequences negatively affecting your health or life. However, addiction does not always involve using substances.
- Dependence: When your body adapts to chronic substance use, resulting in a higher tolerance and withdrawal symptoms if you abruptly stop using it.
- Substance use disorder (SUD): An addiction involving a substance classified as mild, moderate, or severe, depending on symptoms and criteria in the DSM-5.
Even if what you are experiencing fits the definition of an addiction, it is important to know that you are a person first — a person with an addiction — rather than an addict.
It’s not always obvious or easy to understand how to best help a loved one with substance use disorder. Some may struggle to find the line between “enabling” and “supporting.”
Enabling is when someone’s negative behavior is rewarded through a lack of consequences and accountability, which lessens the reasons for someone to want to change their behavior.
According to the Betty Ford Foundation, a leading foundation for addiction treatment, enabling could look like:
- protecting a loved one from the consequences of their substance use disorder
- keeping secrets on their behalf regarding their substance use
- not maintaining boundaries
- making excuses for their harmful behavior
- financially supporting them
- assisting in them not taking responsibility
- avoiding discussing their substance use and the harm it causes
Supporting your loved one — rather than enabling them — can be the best way to be present for someone with substance use disorder. Lending a loved one support can often mean letting them know you love them while still holding them accountable and responsible for their actions.
Examples of supporting someone with substance use disorder might look like:
- giving a friend a ride to support group meetings
- playing board games at home with your partner during times of stress
- offering to host dry (alcohol-free) events for a loved one
There is no “one size fits all” response to helping a loved one navigate substance use disorder and recovery.
Substance use disorder can be different for everyone. Finding the best treatment plan is often highly personal and can vary. It’s common for people with substance use disorders to try multiple methods of treatment — or a combination of strategies — before finding what works for them.
Approaching a conversation about treatment for substance use disorders with a loved one can be a sensitive topic equally unique to each individual.
It can validate loved ones to acknowledge that addiction is considered a chronic disease and that substance use disorder is not a flaw.
Substance use disorder can be a lifelong condition for some people. Treatment and recovery are possible, but substance use disorders still can affect mental and physical health. Empathy and compassion for what someone is experiencing can be very uplifting and comforting.
Don’t pressure them
If you think your loved one needs support for substance use disorder, there are ways to help without pressuring or pushing them. Sometimes, trying to convince someone with substance use disorder to get help can cause them to feel judged or isolated.
You can encourage someone to seek treatment, but a person needs to decide to get help on their own.
Avoid staged interventions
While staging interventions may happen on TV, these events can be very stressful and uncomfortable in reality. Luring someone into a room full of people so they can hear all their mistakes can be overwhelming, especially for those struggling with difficult emotions like guilt or shame.
While many attend rehabilitation after interventions, there is little scientific evidence that supports long-term sobriety.
If you decide that an intervention is the best route for your loved one, consider searching for a credentialed expert through a site like the Association of Intervention Specialists.
The CRAFT method
One method popular in Denmark is the
The CRAFT method aids those supporting someone with substance use disorder in understanding important pieces for recovery, such as:
- their loved one’s triggers
- effective communication styles
- how to help their loved one center self-care
Sometimes, support from loved ones looks like offering space to be honest about their feelings and concerns without judgment. You can let your loved one know that you’re there to listen if they feel like venting about what they’re going through.
It’s OK to be honest about not knowing about or fully understanding the experience of substance use disorder. It may be best to avoid giving advice in these moments.
Be present with them
A 2019 study showed that those with substance use disorder can lack social support. However, those with more support from loved ones may have a better chance at maintaining long-term sobriety.
Oftentimes, folks just want to know they aren’t alone. No one expects you to have all the answers, but companionship and presence from someone who loves you can go a long way.
Helping to eliminate some of the barriers they may have to getting treatment can be a great way to show your support. Some examples could be:
- sharing helpful resources
- giving rides to treatment
- offering to handle less-pressing duties so they can go to a support group or therapy session
The first step to getting help is often acknowledging that you need it. So if you’re here, you’re well on your way to making healthy choices.
Figuring out next steps in getting help for substance use disorder can feel daunting. Know that you’re not alone and that you have options, including:
- in-patient treatment facilities
- outpatient counseling
- support groups
If you are interested in finding a rehab facility or day program, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration can be a great place to start. You can also find 12-step programs by searching databases like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
For therapists, you can also search the American Board of Addiction Medicine site to check for providers and their credentials.
Aiming to support a loved one who is dealing with a substance use disorder can feel like a tough subject.
While media tends to misrepresent the realities of helping someone with substance use disorder get help, there are plenty of positive ways to support your loved one.
Shame, judgment, or “tough love” can be harmful to anyone living with a substance use disorder. Instead, you may consider:
- having open conversation
- lending a listening ear
- offering to support in tangible ways
Showing up in a way that does not enable harmful behavior can always be a good first step in supporting someone with substance use disorder.
If you feel that involving a therapist or doctor could be helpful, you can visit Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.