Helping a Loved One
How to Help Someone Struggling with Addiction
Being in a relationship with someone who struggles with addiction can be agonizing. It is hard to see (and experience) those we care about hurt themselves. The natural reaction for most is to want to help, but unfortunately, few people really understand how best to help. The common wisdom is that someone who struggles with addiction needs professional treatment, and once they get it, things will be alright. Therefore, your primary task is to find some way to get your friend or loved one into treatment. This most often involves pleading, threats, or arranging some kind of formal intervention where the person struggling with addiction is surprised by a roomful of family and friends who encourage them to enter treatment. It is true that treatment can help, but studies have also shown that when a person enters treatment with low motivation to change (which is most often the case when the previously mentioned tactics are used), they very often don’t engage in the process, frequently drop out early, and usually resume their addictive behavior shortly after discharge. As a result, it does not take more than a couple of failed treatment episodes before we begin to lose hope that things will change, get more and more angry at the person struggling with addiction, and become resentful of all the time and effort that we have put into attempting to help them. Further, our resentment deepens when the person struggling with addiction causes us (and other family members) pain as a result of their behavior. It is a very serious problem with no simple solutions.
So what is the optimal way to proceed in such a case? I believe the following steps provide the best path for success for anyone who wants to help a person struggling with addiction:
Step 1: Gain an accurate understanding of the problem of addiction. Knowledge is power, but unfortunately, many people will spend countless hours attempting to change a person who struggles with addiction without ever really taking the time to understand addiction. Chances are, the person who struggles with addiction, also has very little knowledge of the problem. By educating yourself about addiction, you will be in a much better position to understand how people change and the best methods for long-term success. I would start by reading the Top Five Things You Should Know About Addiction (of course the rest of this site also has information that would be useful to know).
Step 2: There are few really good, science-based publications on how best to help someone who struggles with addiction. One exception, is a book titled Get Your Loved One Sober: Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading and Threatening by Robert Meyer and Brenda Wolfe. Although the book focuses primarily on helping someone with a drinking problem, the information is applicable across all addictions (drugs, gambling, sex). What makes this book unique is that it is based on many years of scientific research into an intervention model called the Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT) approach. The previous link will give you an overview of the Community Reinforcement Approach (in which CRAFT is an offshoot) until you are able to purchase the book. Also, Robert Meyer did a presentation on CRAFT that also can provide you some background information on the approach. A word of caution, it is not a magic bullet and requires effort on your part, but at least there is solid evidence that if you follow the suggestions in the book your chances of truly helping someone with an addiction increase substantially. Also check out this journal article on the CRAFT Approach.
Step 3: Seek out your own therapy (if you are not already engaged in the process) – but this suggestion takes some clarification. Seeing the wrong therapist can actually make matters worse if they have less understanding of addiction than you do (because you have already done Step 1), and they are unaware of the information you learned in Step 2 and push for a classic intervention that does not have a high success rate. The goal here is not to seek out an expert that will tell you what to do in relation to the person struggling with addiction, but to find a competent counselor that can help you developmentally gain greater insight, skills, and emotional resources to better cope with your situation.
Additional resources you may find helpful:
Helping Family Members with Addiction (Nice article by a well-respected clinician from Harvard)