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Beginning the Conversation About Addiction With a Loved One

The American Psychiatric Association defines addiction as “compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences.” People with addictions are driven to continue the behavior even when it causes serious problems in their lives.

Addiction is now known clinically as either alcohol use disorder (AUD) or substance use disorder (SUD), and is viewed as a diagnosable chronic disease. As with many chronic diseases, if left untreated it can be life-threatening. If you believe someone you care about may have an AUD or SUD, don’t let fear about “stepping on toes” or “meddling” prevent you from starting the conversation about addiction. Your goal is to motivate them to agree to seek help, and it could end up saving their life.

Before you start a conversation about addiction, educate yourself about the signs and symptoms. This will give you a better idea as to whether they have a diagnosable addiction issue, and if so, how severe that issue may be. If you observe that they’re regularly “under the influence”, that’s a pretty obvious sign. But other signs may not be as obvious. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation website lists possible signs of addiction as:

  • A noticeable increase in drinking or drug use (more than usual)
  • Periodic attempts to “go on the wagon” or to switch from liquor to beer, or from cocaine to another drug
  • Interest only in going to parties or places where alcohol or other drugs are available
  • A change in personality when under the influence of alcohol or other drugs
  • Driving when under the influence (or reacting angrily when you ask for the car keys)
  • Sniffing constantly, having frequent colds, or making many trips to the bathroom
  • Calling late at night but failing to remember the conversation the next day
  • Bragging about drinking or drug-taking exploits or, if you don’t approve, acting secretive or withdrawn
  • Trouble on the job or frequent work absences
  • Difficulties at home
  • Spending more time with friends who drink and less time with you
  • Drinking before you get together (or not showing up on time or at all)
  • Complaining about other people or stopping spending time with certain friends
  • Having money problems, borrowing money from you, or running up credit debt
  • Having legal problems

Planning the conversation

If you feel reasonably sure your loved one does have a problem with drugs or alcohol, pre-plan your conversation.

  • Plan to talk when loved one is sober
  • Consider a neutral location (where no drugs or alcohol will be present)
  • Jot down specific examples of destructive behavior you’ve observed
  • Arrange for someone to accompany you or be available on-call. This could be an intervention specialist, an outpatient treatment specialist, someone from AA or NA, a clergy member, or another person you think would be appropriate.
  • Make a list of AA or NA meeting times and locations
  • If you think professional treatment might be the best option, discuss this ahead of time with a treatment facility so you have specific information as to how the process would work, and when they could be admitted.

Having the conversation 

Once you’ve done your homework, you’re ready for the conversation. You’ve picked a time when your loved one is sober, has plenty of time to talk, and is in a private setting.  Remain calm, open, and honest throughout the discussion.

Watch your body language, being careful to remain open and relaxed. Avoid judging or lecturing. Remember to listen as well as talk. Don’t use the word “addict.”

Explain you’ve noticed their drinking or drug use seems to be having negative consequences, and you’re concerned. If you’ve noticed family, work, school, risky behavior, or other problems that seem to be related to substance use, use examples. Stick to specifics, as in “I noticed,” and avoid accusing or generalizing, as in “you always…” Discuss patterns of behavior you’ve observed, rather than an isolated occurrence.

Be open about your concerns that alcohol or drug use can hurt the user’s family and friends, cause severe problems at work or school, and can result in serious injury to themselves or others. Remind them that addiction can jeopardize their family relationships, career, and physical, mental, and behavioral health.

Help your loved one to understand that addiction is a disease recognized by the American Medical Association. Have printed literature to share with them, as well as any other resources you think might be helpful.

Throughout the conversation, continue to emphasize your support for them and your belief in them.

Suggest a particular course of action, whether it’s an evaluation by a doctor, therapist, or addiction specialist, a 12-step meeting, or admittance to an inpatient or outpatient program.

When your loved one is not receptive 

Don’t get discouraged if they refuse to acknowledge they have a problem. It may take more than one conversation, or more negative consequences before your loved one is ready to seek help. Reassure your loved one that you are available anytime to talk and will help in any way needed. Understand that while you can’t control your loved one’s denial, you’ve taken a big step by opening the door. Be patient and try again at another time.

If the substance use appears to be at a critical point but your loved one refuses to seek help, there are other options:

  • If you haven’t already tried an intervention approach, the Mayo Clinic has some excellent information on how to do so.
  • Contact an Addiction Interventionist. These are intervention professionals, certified by the Association of Intervention Specialists (AIS), and are trained to guide families and others through the intervention process to encourage addicted individuals to accept help.
  • If you are concerned your loved one may harm themselves or others, consider petitioning the court for involuntary commitment. Called the Marchman Act in Florida, similar options are available in most states. If the person you are concerned about lives outside the state of Florida, search online to see if involuntary commitment is possible in that state.

Addiction causes strong emotions in everyone it touches, including worry, fear, and frustration. As you seek help for your addicted loved one, be sure to take care of yourself. Talk to your own physician or therapist and attend a support group like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon. The stronger and healthier you stay, the better equipped you are to help your addicted loved one.

Turning Point of Tampa’s goal is to always provide a safe environment and a solid foundation in 12-Step recovery, in tandem with quality individual therapy and groups. We have been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987. If you need help or know someone who does, please contact our admissions department at 813-882-3003, 800-397-3006 or admissions@tpoftampa.com.