How to Support Someone Through Addiction
Addiction, often referred to as substance use disorder by health professionals, affects everyone in the orbit of the person suffering from it. If you have a friend, family member or partner who is struggling with substance use, you probably want to support them but don't know what works. Learning about helpful strategies is a good place to start.
The science of addiction
Addiction is a brain disease involving drug-seeking and drug use that cannot be controlled, despite negative consequences. Our brain's reward system is designed to encourage us to engage in advantageous behaviors by releasing the feel-good hormone dopamine. Drugs do the same thing, encouraging repeated use by releasing two to 10 times the amount of dopamine that comes from pleasurable activities such as eating or sex. As a result, motivation to use the substance becomes incredibly strong, and the person is more likely to repeat the behavior.
Obstacles to overcoming addiction
Sadly, 40 to 60 percent of people who try to beat an addiction relapse. Drugs change the way the brain works, impacting decision-making, judgment, learning and behavior control. Initially, people tend to use oxycodone because it makes them feel good or they want to fit in with a crowd or escape from their environment. Once addiction develops, they no longer have self-control about using a drug or resisting it. The drug makes them feel better, and the thought of life without it is unbearable. Prolonged drug use can cause the brain to begin releasing less dopamine or to decrease dopamine receptors to counteract the surge in dopamine caused by drug use. This makes it difficult to feel pleasure from experiences that once made them happy, increasing the likelihood they will use again to restore the feeling.
Cues in everyday life make staying drug-free even harder. And abstinence can bring on anxiety, sweating, depression, vomiting and hallucinations. The more risk factors that predispose someone to addiction—childhood aggressive behavior, experimentation with drugs, poor social skills, community poverty, lack of parental involvement—the more the deck is stacked against them.
How you can be supportive
If a family member, friend or loved one is suffering from substance use disorder and you want to help, you should conduct research. Check out sources such as Assistance in Recovery. Ask the other person to explain the situation from their perspective, because seeing addiction through their eyes can make it easier to understand. Always treat them fairly and with dignity and compassion. Don't be a bad influence. Never bring drugs around them or ask them if they want to do drugs with you, and don't go together to social events where drugs are likely to be present. Try to minimize triggering situations, which could cause a relapse. Instead, make plans with sober friends in safe environments.
Explore healthy ways to spend time together to decrease stress. Go for hikes, play tennis, try chess or yoga or jam to music. Encourage relaxation techniques: writing in a journal, meditation, breathing exercises or music therapy. Allow them to learn from their mistakes and to learn to say no to temptations. Whether you're supporting them financially or with material needs, do so without enabling substance use and be upfront and honest about how you will help.
Take care of yourself, too
Consider joining a caregivers' support group such as AI-Anon. Set boundaries and enforce them. Take space when you need it, and put yourself first. If your loved one is comfortable with it, consider attending a doctor's appointment, family or group therapy session or support group meeting with them.
Be reasonable: counting on someone to just quit and be done with it on the first try may set both of you up for failure and disappointment. Be prepared for possible relapse(s) and be encouraging if it happens. Don't be surprised if long-term complications from their addiction linger, whether it be a past DUI or health complications. If you suspect a relapse, ask gently about what's going on, reach out to friends and family members and encourage your loved one to attend a meeting or contact their therapist.
Be patient, and understand the slippery road that is recovery.