If you love someone who is battling an addiction and you are wondering what to do, please keep the following in mind:
- Treating an addiction is about more than just about breaking the addict’s physical dependence on the substance – It is a common misconception that curing an addiction simply means abstinence from the substance or behaviour for a long enough period that it is eliminated from the addicted person’s system. This assumption fundamentally misunderstands the nature of addiction and the neurological processes that keep it alive. As an addiction develops, new and distinct neural pathways are formed in the addicted person’s brain, establishing powerful linkages between the pleasure and relief provided by the substance or behaviour and the routines and triggers of everyday life. This process might be compared to the formation of a well-trodden hiking trail. The more we use the path, the faster, easier, and more familiar it becomes. As we travel it more and more, it becomes wider, smoother, and easier to use. It becomes a preferred route. The same is true of neural pathways. Over time, the brain forms familiar neural pathways, and these become habitual routes. Recovery from addiction is about laying new paths and equipping the addicted person with sufficient coping mechanisms and motivation to tread them for a long enough period that they become the preferred route.
- Sometimes medication is necessary – When treating addictions to opioids (prescription pain relievers or drugs like heroin or fentanyl), medication should be the first line of treatment, followed by some form of behavioural therapy or counseling. Medications are also available to help treat addiction to alcohol and nicotine. Medications are also used to help people detoxify from drugs, although detoxification is not the same as treatment and is not sufficient to help a person recover. Detoxification alone without subsequent behavioural therapy or counseling generally leads to resumption of drug use.
- Be optimistic – If the addiction is acknowledged and decisive action taken, there is good reason to be optimistic about the future. The last two decades have seen great strides in the development of effective evidence-based treatment methods and research shows that most people who consciously pursue recovery do ultimately succeed. A substance use disorder is considered “a good prognosis disorder”.
- Be realistic – Expect recovery but be prepared for relapse. Although some people achieve recovery on their first attempt, for others it requires multiple attempts over multiple years. Family members should also maintain realistic expectations in their interactions with the addicted person. Your loved one is going to lie to you, and you will want to believe them. They might actually believe themselves. But what they are doing is protecting their illness, because the addictive behaviour or substance has come to seem as vital to them as air. This isn’t to say that you should excuse lying, only that you should understand where it’s coming from so you can take it a little less personally and avoid getting sidetracked by pain and resentment. Instead, keep the lines of communication open, but set clear boundaries that protect you and them, and that encourage a turn toward treatment.
- You are not to blame – It is not unusual for the immediate family members of a person in active addiction to feel guilt or responsibility for the way that the situation has developed. This is not productive, and it is almost certainly not a true reflection of reality. No matter what you did, how you parented or whether you argued, you did not wish this life for your loved one and you did not cause the condition. Whatever the circumstances were that led your loved to start using drugs or alcohol, you need to know that addiction is a complicated condition influenced by many factors, including genetics. It is more than just an emotional or psychological phenomenon. The structural changes that occur in the addicted brain exert an extremely powerful influence on that person’s behaviour – crowding out reason, common sense and even love.
- Educate yourself about treatment options and seek out support networks – A vital first step in moving towards a permanent solution for your loved one and your family is shining a light on the problem. Alcoholics, Narcotics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous are well-established non-profit organisations with a robust global network of support for family members of people suffering from addiction. If your family member is willing to undergo an assessment, Cherrywood House offers this service for free.