One of the worst discoveries a family member can make is that their child, sibling, spouse, parent has been using drugs. If you fall in the category of family member, you are likely feeling experiencing the full gamut of emotions and are wondering what to do next. There are some important things to understand about your loved one.  

  1. If their drug use has been present for a while, they may fit the diagnosis of addiction.  The DSM-5, which is the diagnostic manual used by clinicians.  This manual specifies the criterion that must be met for someone to be diagnosed with a dependence disorder.
  2. Your loved one is not using to be willful or rebellious if they are addicted to a substance.  They have what is recognized as a brain disorder.
  3. Your loved one cannot just “stop” using the substance at will.  Addiction is a very powerful disease that influences mind, body and spirit.
  4. Once your loved one becomes clean and sober, it will take time for your family life to settle down because the healing process will need to include healing for the family.

You may ask “How do I know if my loved one is addicted and how can I get them to stop?”

This is a question that every family wants the answer to right away! Unfortunately the solution to the problem is not that simple. If it were simple then there would likely be much fewer addicts in our county than there are.   

“Well my father was an alcoholic and just stopped! Why can’t my son/daughter/sister/parent just stop?” If Dad was able to stop on his own and never drink again then he is an exception.

Many family members argue, cajole, nag, plead with tears, restrict access to money and transportation, lecture and give advice, but end up angry, anxious, afraid and generally worn out from trying to convince their loved one to stop using drugs or even to get professional help. In some cases family members will remember some episode of Intervention where they saw family members getting their loved one to go to a treatment facility with the help of a professional interventionist, and may even try an intervention of their own. What can happen in such cases is that the loved one may stay in treatment for a few days and then walk out for one reason or another.

“Well, if I can’t get my loved one to accept treatment, then what do I do”?

First of all, family members can get help and support for themselves through such support groups as Alanon, Naranon, Celebrate Recovery (a faith based program) among others. Alanon is a sister organization to Alcoholic Anonymous and Naranon is partnered with Narcotics Anonymous. If the family has a religious affiliation then support may be found within a religious support system.  

Secondly, refrain from paying bills for your loved one, from giving them rides to get alcohol or other drugs, from bailing them out of jail on demand, or otherwise doing for them those things they need to be responsible for. Calling a treatment facility to set up an appointment for an adult loved one will be met with a response that the adult loved one needs to call for themselves. If the loved one is in the legal system, then they may be required to attend treatment. Such an external motivator can at least get the loved one through the door of the treatment program.  

Thirdly, be willing to step back and let your loved one be responsible for their own success or failure in treatment. Do not try to supervise by trying to attend treatment group or support group meetings unless you are invited on a limited basis. Their willingness to become sober and engage in treatment may depend on the family stepping back to give them room.  

“What if my loved one is injecting Heroin?”

This is indeed very frightening. Heroin has a very high risk of relapse even when the loved one really wants to stop or has even overdosed. There is a tool used by first line responders to revive overdose victims.  It is called Narcan. Some opponents to Narcan will insist that just helps them continue using when they  have been revived.  Narcan is a “harm reduction” tool used to revive overdose victims and to give the first responder a short window of time to get the victim to the hospital for stabilization.  The effect of Narcan will reverse within about 30 minutes or so and the victim can return to the overdose state.  This is why it is critical for emergency responders to be called for help. Narcan is now available for purchase at pharmacies.

Even when an overdose victim has been revived and released from the hospital, they may still return to use even when the overdose experience was traumatic to them. The high of Heroin is very appealing even  in the face of near death experiences from overdose. Some hospital ER’s are now partnering with mental health/addiction providers that have what are called Engagement Specialists that make contact with overdose survivors that have been treated with Narcan, for the purpose of offering quick access to treatment services and will continue to follow up with the survivor to offer support and encouragement.  

For the family members, the most important course of action is to get support for family healing. Alanon and Naranon have contact information on their websites and even have links for meeting locators.