Insight for the Journey: Helping a Family Member Part 1

Insight for the Journey: Helping a Family Member Part 1

This is the first of a two-part article on extending help to a loved one who has substance use and mental health problems. Concerned friends and family often find themselves in unfamiliar territory when trying to help someone who is in active addiction. Common questions include: what can I do? How can I help without enabling or rescuing? How can I best communicate my own thoughts and feelings? 

Many treatment centers have family meetings and offer some guidance in to avoid common pitfalls and offer appropriate support and encouragement. Here are some helpful suggestions. 

1. Be honest about your thoughts and feelings – Communicate what you want to happen and what the addiction has done to you and to the relationship. Don’t lie about your pain or minimize the damage to family relationships. Being direct in your communication about your feelings and thoughts is risky, yet it often launches the healing process for your relationship and adds a protective layer for you. 

2. Don’t believe it’s being personally done to you – Stay emotionally strong and confident even when your friend or family member says that you caused or contributed to their addictive pattern. A concept common in addiction literature is “The Three Cs of Dealing with an Addict.” They include: 1) You didn’t cause the addiction. 2) You can’t control their addiction. 3) You can’t cure their addiction. Watch for accusations, shame, and anger to pull you back into an enabling or rescuing role. 

3. Learn about the nature of addiction – Addiction is cunning, baffling, and powerful. Prepare yourself though knowledge of the mental health complications of substance use disorders. Learn the signs of addiction, the progressive nature of addiction, relapse triggers, treatment options, family components of the illness and recovery support strategies. Increasing your knowledge about recovery increases your power and ability to help others and protect yourself. 

4. Understand the tendency to minimize – A person with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders may minimize the extent of their problems, rationalize continued substance use, and deny the damage that has been caused. Find a balance between understanding their behavior without making excuses for it. Beware of a tendency to track behaviors, count bottles, monitor calls, check out stories, and point out lies. 

5. Focus on the goal that recovery would support – Goals are varied. For some the goal might be to work full time, go back to school, raise their children, get a good job, or have a stable relationship. Yet, recovery is not the goal, staying in recovery is what makes the above goals possible. Remind your family member of the goal that recovery supports. 

Watch for the second of this two-part series: Helping a Family Member. 

Recovery is a Journey. Enjoy the Ride!

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