This is a logical and very necessary first step. Before you can learn how best to help a struggling addict or alcoholic, you need to understand the nature of addiction. There are several models of addiction that attempt to describe what it is and why it affects people, but none of those models are entirely accurate. Many people have heard of the disease model, which does a fairly decent job of describing what we see in the real world. For example, even addicts or alcoholics who have stayed clean for several decades can relapse and be right back to their old level of consumption within a matter of days.
Also note that addiction can affect potentially anyone, including those who:
- Have no apparent genetic predisposition for addiction or alcoholism
- Have very little environmental risk
- Have no moral shortcomings or laziness about them
Even if you do not believe in the disease model, learning more about how it works is a necessary foundation in learning about how you can potentially help a struggling addict or alcoholic. If you want to know how to help alcoholics then you need to learn about the condition.
We cannot control a drug addict or an alcoholic, but we can control our own behavior, including how we behave in relationship to a sick and suffering (and possibly manipulative) addict or alcoholic. Therefore, the best thing that you can do if you want to help someone in your life is to get yourself to an Al-Anon meeting. The people there can listen to your situation and give you the best specific advice on how to go about handling things. Educating yourself on how to set limits and boundaries is one of the most important things that you can do in this case.
One example of setting a boundary is telling a close friend that you prefer they not be around you if they are drunk or high. Notice that it is specific, and you have to sit down and communicate this type of request explicitly with someone. Setting a boundary like this is difficult because there is this tendency to hurt other’s feelings. But that is part of what is keeping you sick, caring more about this person’s feelings than your own personal well being. Setting boundaries is about putting your own personal well being first, and letting that be a guiding example of how to live. You know you are setting effective boundaries when you are taking back control of your own life and starting to regain your own sanity, instead of being all wrapped up in the problems of a struggling drug addict or alcoholic. This is a crucial distance you must learn to keep when learning how to help a recovering drug addict.
Any time that you casually approach this struggling addict or talk with them about the possibility of getting help is an example of an informal intervention. This might not sound like a very useful option compared to a more formal and organized intervention, but nonetheless it can be very effective. In my own personal experience, I finally decided to ask for addiction help and thus changed my whole life after a simple phone conversation with a family member. The reason for this was because timing was everything. Previously, a formal intervention had failed, because I simply had not been ready to make a change at that time. But a key conversation happened at just the right moment, and it set in motion a series of life changing events for me.
Does this mean that you should pester someone incessantly until they get clean and sober? Probably not. Helping an addict is never that straightforward. But you should never give up hope on them, and you should have a consistent message for them without badgering them. Make sure they know that help is available for them if and when they want it.
This is what most people think of when they hear the term “intervention,” where the friends and family of an addict all get together and confront that person together and urge them to get help. This is not necessarily the best choice though. There is a lot of evidence that an addict or alcoholic will only change when they personally come to their own point of surrender. A formal intervention does not bring a person to this point. Many would argue that the intervention would only work if the person is already at this critical point of surrender. Nevertheless, some formal interventions have been successful at persuading people to get clean and sober. Here is a full guide to planning and organizing a formal intervention.
A friend or loved one who is caught up in the cycle of addiction has to be approached in the right way. We all know how worthless it is for advice to fall on deaf ears, and this is bound to be the case with certain approaches in trying to help struggling addicts. But there are specific, proactive actions that you can take regardless of where your loved one is at in their addiction. There are no hard and fast rules here because different personality types will call for different approaches. One valuable guideline might be to always use a caring approach instead of a threatening one. Consider the different levels of denial and willingness to change that an addict or alcoholic might have:
Complete Denial – If a person is in complete denial of their addiction, then there is little that you can do other than focus on your own behaviors and actions. The best that you can do in this case might be to communicate your boundaries with the person and let it be known that you won’t be bailing them out of any jams. A formal intervention is unlikely to produce an immediate change, although it might be a step in letting the person know how much everyone cares for them. In some cases, a formal intervention might be an unhealthy move on your part…better to take care of yourself at this point and simply establish healthy boundaries with the person.
They are Admitting to their Problem, but are Reluctant to take action - This is the difference between admitting and accepting that they have an addiction. This person is technically still in denial, but they just aren’t willing to change yet. The fear of change, the fear of life without chemicals is too great for them, even though they know that they have a real problem. They are caught between a rock and a hard place.
I was in this state for several years, but was scared to get help and make a change. I was terrified of the thought of facing life without drugs and alcohol. What finally got me to ask for help and change my life was a simple, informal conversation with a family member over the phone. This is what finally “did the trick,” whereas a full scale formal intervention in the past had failed. But also realize that the formal intervention might have been a critical part of the journey. They Admit to their Problem and Say they are Willing to Change, but only on Their Own Terms – This is still denial, but in its sneakiest form. The person has agreed to address their addiction and says that they are willing to change. They might even have a genuine willingness to change. But the problem is that they are only going to change on their own terms.
Fear is holding them back. The person is so close to making a life changing decision. Tread with caution and don’t push them over the edge. Be helpful and supportive. Personality type will help dictate if this is the best time for a formal intervention or not. If they are secluded, isolated, shy, or have anxiety or depression, then a formal intervention with lots of people might be a bad idea at this point. If you want to know how to help drug addicts then you have to learn to figure out how hard you can press up against this wall of fear. It can be a tricky balance to attain.
They Accept their Addiction and Will do Almost Anything You Suggest – This is complete surrender, and represents someone who is ready to change. Get them to a treatment center or a twelve step meeting.
One of the key principles that will help you in dealing with a struggling alcoholic or drug addict is detachment. The idea behind it is to separate yourself emotionally from the damaging effects of your relationship with the addict or alcoholic. It is not the same as complete disassociation or abandoning the relationship. The idea is to care for them while detaching emotionally. You can care for them but not feel like you are responsible for them. In other words, you are specifically trying to not get all wrapped up emotionally by an addicts destructive behaviors.
This is difficult.
Practicing detachment should make it easier over time. Here are some things that you can do in order to practice detachment with the struggling addict in your life:
- Don’t do things that they should be doing themselves.
- Don’t bend over backwards to rescue them or save them from natural consequences.
- Don’t cover up for their mistakes or embarrassing situations.
- Don’t rescue them from crisis or financial situations.
- Don’t try to fix them.
- Let go of any guilt you may have about them.
Detachment is not about denying your emotions. If someone close to you dies, for example, you will probably feel sad. You can’t choose this feeling. It simply is. But we do have the power to affect the intensity of this feeling, by focusing on the positive aspects of the situation. We can also change our thinking in an attempt to eradicate irrational beliefs that might be contributing to our emotional turmoil.
The goal is not to go without emotions, the goal is to achieve some level of emotional stability. We are detaching from the negative, irrational thoughts that stir up our emotions, like the guilt we might have if we think someone’s addiction is our fault.
Detachment is difficult and takes practice. I urge you to find local Al-Anon meetings and get involved with them, as those are the people who can help you the most.
Good luck to everyone out there and God bless.