Approaching and Helping an Addict

Written by Mara Tyler | Published on July 14, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD on July 14, 2014

Approaching and Helping an Addict

Trying to help an addict can be a long, challenging, and painful process for friends and family members. Unlike a person with a physically debilitating condition, such as cancer, an addict may not initially recognize the true danger of his or her illness or understand the inherent risks of not treating it.

Before approaching an addict with the intention to help, it’s important to remember that, ultimately, no one but the addict is responsible for recovery. Typically, an addict must be ready and willing to stop and get help before the recovery process can even begin.

How to Talk to Someone Suffering from Addiction

Initially, attempt to talk with the addict in person. This approach can be less intimidating for him or her than staging an intervention with several people.

Find a time when you can be alone with the addict and will be free of distractions or interruptions. Explain to the addict that you’re concerned about his or her behavior and ask if he or she is open to hearing your thoughts. Try to use non-blaming language and avoid raising your voice or getting angry. The addict will usually respond better if you convey that you are coming from a place of concern and compassion. It may help to talk about specific behaviors or incidents that have directly affected you as a result of the individual’s addiction.

If the addict is receptive to your thoughts and concerns, ask if he or she would be willing to seek professional help. Understand that the addict may not be open to discussing this option. He or she may become defensive. If this is the case, let it go for the time being. Do not threaten or shame the addict. Instead, start talking with other family members and concerned parties to begin planning an intervention.

If Necessary, Stage an Intervention

If the addict is in grave danger or doesn’t respond to the concerns of loved ones, it may be helpful to stage an intervention. A family member’s house or the addict’s home is a good place to hold the intervention. It should be somewhere quiet where the addict feels safe. Do not attempt to lock doors or block the addict’s exit if the meeting does not go well. The addict should be able to leave at will if he or she is not prepared to be a part of the intervention. The intervention will only work if the addict accepts it.

Before organizing an intervention, it may be best to consult a substance abuse counselor, social worker, or other trusted health expert. Having this person at the intervention can be very useful, especially if the addict does not respond well or becomes angry. Organize a time when friends, family, and other concerned parties can gather together. Allow at least a few hours for the intervention. Everyone present should have enough time to communicate his or her thoughts and feelings.

When the addict arrives, explain that you have gathered everyone there because you are concerned about the addict’s behavior. Have members explain specifically how the addict’s behavior has affected them and encourage them to express their concern for the addict’s welfare. It may also help to remind the addict of the consequences that could ensue if his or her behavior continues. However, try to not threaten.

Offer the addict information and resources about different programs or treatment centers where he or she can start a recovery process. If the addict is willing, take him or her to a rehabilitation facility on the spot. If the addict is not willing, let him or her leave the intervention. You cannot force an addict to listen or to start a recovery program against his or her will.

Try to Stay Involved

Once the addict has started a recovery program, stay involved with the process. Don’t send him or her off to a treatment center or to a recovery program and assume that all will be well. Ongoing support from loved ones is key.

If he or she is in a treatment center, visit or send care packages if possible. Participate in family days or program sessions where you are welcome. Convey that you are willing to be a part of the recovery process and can offer support in any way the addict needs. It may be helpful to purchase books or other resources that will help in recovery. In general, it can be very helpful to the addict’s recovery if he or she has the support and involvement of loved ones.

Learn to Let Go

Whether the addict is in recovery or still using, it’s critical for friends and family to learn the balance of involvement and detachment. Many professional resources are available to families and friends of addicts.

If the addict is still using, explain what the boundaries of your relationship will be so long as he or she continues to use. It’s possible the addict will need to “hit bottom” before asking for help or being willing to change. You may need to cut off contact in order to maintain your own mental health and emotional wellbeing. Remember, you can’t help your loved one if you are not well yourself.

If the addict is in recovery, show support, but do not attempt to micromanage his or her life or recovery process. Part of recovery is learning to be accountable and responsible for one’s own actions. In general, focus on yourself and determine how you can take care of your own needs. Unfortunately, loving an addict can be a difficult experience. The best thing loved ones can do is to let the addict know you support him or her while still maintaining appropriate boundaries and protecting your own wellbeing.

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