First Steps to Recovery
Do you have a loved one who’s struggling with substance abuse? If you do, you’re not alone. According to the Journal of Addiction Medicine, over 21 million people in the US struggle with substance abuse disorder (SUD). This means that the number of family members impacted is even greater.
We know that addiction is complex and challenging on a number of levels. But with the right treatment and support, recovery is possible.
The first step, however, is having the initial conversation with your loved one. But what do you start with? How should you approach it? What if they resist? Depending on if they need to be convinced of their condition or if they already know, the tips provided below will help you get started.
An Ideal Scenario: They’ve Reached Out for Help
The ideal situation? That your loved one has reached out to you for help and acknowledged that something needs to change. If this is the case, you can begin walking them through the first steps of the process. This often looks like providing support, gathering resources, and encouraging them start treatment.
Unfortunately, not everyone’s situation looks like this. More often, the person struggling with addiction or substance abuse is in denial and may even resist the idea of treatment. If this is you, don’t worry. The steps below will help provide support you need.
#1: Be Informed and Gather Resources
For someone struggling with addiction or substance abuse, admitting that something needs to change can feel like a big leap. Even if it’s a slow process, it begins with coming to terms with the facts.
For your part, the most important first step is to educate yourself. If you’re well-informed, it will be easier to talk to your loved one with patience, gentleness, and clarity. Therefore, you’ve got to learn about addiction, how it starts, and be able to identify these markers in your loved one’s habits.
In the earliest stages of your conversation, it will help to acknowledge the stigmas that come with addiction. If you avoid these assumptions yourself—like “my loved one is a failure”—you can approach their struggle as a mental health condition. Your respect and sensitivity will go a long way for a person who probably already feels isolated and like a failure.
#2: Don’t Make It a Surprise Attack
Despite what’s portrayed in movies and TV programs about “drug interventions,” such surprise attacks often do more harm than good for all the parties involved.
Instead of backing your loved one into a corner and framing the conversation as an ambush, approach it with love, care, and respect for their humanity. If you don’t, your attempts will likely be interpreted as attacks rather than genuine care. In the long-term, this may cause them to isolate more and even cut off contact with you.
If you’re involving more family members in the intervention, make sure you’re all on the same page before you start. Respect, care, and healing should be the goals. If you can, it might be better to hold off on the breakdowns until a family therapy session.
#3: Frame It As a Family Conversation
Once they know you’re not launching an ambush, it will help to frame the rest of the time as a family conversation. You can talk about:
- how you’re concerned for their physical and mental health
- the condition of your relationship in light of their substance abuse
- how they’re feeling about where they’re at in their life
- what they see as good steps in order to move forward
- things you’ve noticed that have led you to this conversation
There are a number of ways your loved one might respond to this conversation including denial, anger, sadness, manipulation, excuses, or other defense mechanisms. If so, just remember that this may be the first of many conversation—the first seed that needs time to grow.
#4: Don’t Resort to the “Blame Game”
If the conversation isn’t going as well as you hoped, it’s easy to feel frustrated and start getting defensive yourself. After all, you’ve been affected in a significant way by your loved one’s struggle.
Moreover, you may have had to deal with the stigma that comes with just being associated with someone struggling with addiction or substance abuse. The realities of being judged by outsiders and labeled as an “enabler” or “codependent” are real—and they hurt. But studies show that these stigmas only isolate family members from one another. Instead, these assumptions should be addressed in therapeutic settings where family members can start the healing process together.
In the moment, try to stay calm. You don’t have to absolve your loved one from how they’ve hurt you but you’ll automatically set them on the defensive if you use blaming language. Some examples of what NOT to say include:
- “You shouldn’t have done _____”
- “I hate that you never do _____”
- “You make me ______”
Instead of blaming, try orienting your language back to yourself and what you’re feeling. Examples of helpful language include:
- “I’ve been feeling like ____”
- “I’m worried about____”
- “I feel sad when_____”
These small adjustments make a huge difference and reorient the conversation around what you have in common—your relationship and the love you have for each other.
Helpful Tools for a Difficult Conversation
While it’s not easy to talk to a loved one about getting help, it may be an essential part of their recovery process. The research you’ve done and the resources you’ve found will be put to good use—don’t be discouraged if it takes more than one attempt.
Above all, let your loved one know that you support them through their healing journey, however long it takes and whatever it looks like. Let them know that you love them whether they decide to seek out treatment or not.