How to Cope with a Loved One’s Substance Use Disorder

Managing drug or alcohol addiction is never easy, but those whose loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder face an especially difficult and lonely road, as the path to recovery is often a burdensome and draining journey that can progress over several years. Fortunately, with proper support, empathy and love, your loved one has a greater chance of overcoming their addiction. While each situation is unique, there are some general guidelines that will help you approach this task intelligently and efficiently.

Take care of yourself first

Regardless of its nature, being in a relationship with someone who has an addiction can often be quite stressful, difficult and demanding. Accepting that you are going through a hard time as well and that you need to manage your own emotions is an important step in helping your loved one. You won’t be able to provide support or assistance to someone else if you can’t help yourself first, so try to maintain your own self-care routines as much as possible in order to build strength and resiliency.

Set clear boundaries

It is very important to outline a clear set of rules for your relationship, especially when you believe your loved one might be developing or suffering from a substance use disorder. This avoids the potential for unintentionally positively reinforcing substance abuse, helps to avoid feelings of anger and frustration towards your loved one, and it helps avoid potential financial and emotional manipulation, thus protecting not only your personal health and wellbeing, but also helping your loved one get on the path to recovery.

Woman researching substance abuse disorders on a laptop

Educate yourself properly

An important step in helping your loved one is understanding their substance use by learning about the biological, psychological and environmental aspects of their addiction and the many different and varied paths to recovery. For example, if your loved one has a drinking problem, it might be hard to determine when it turns into addiction, it can be very easy to unwittingly enable, and quite hard to offer help when you don’t have enough information about the problem. But by educating yourself, not only will you be empowered to make well-informed decisions, but you will also be ready and equipped when your loved one decides to seek help.

Stop enabling your loved one

People who struggle with addiction often discuss drug use in terms of celebration, often saying that they “deserve” a hit or that they’ve “been good all week” and can cut loose on the weekend. Falling into this linguistic trap might prompt families to buy drugs or alcohol, or even consider celebrating right alongside someone struggling with addiction, hoping to model restrained substance use. However, addictions are brain disorders, and in most cases, people who are struggling with them are simply incapable of modulating their use. Stopping the enabling cycle means respecting the fact that addiction is an illness and refusing to participate in it.

Person seeking the help of a professional therapist

Seek outside help

Considering the shame and stigma that often surrounds alcohol and drug abuse in our society, it’s very common for your loved one to become increasingly secretive and isolated, which is why it is crucial to seek outside help and advice early on and as often as possible. From talking to friends, family and people who have already lived through what you are experiencing right now, to seeking the help of a therapist and an addiction specialist, there are many people  who can help both you and your loved one through this difficult process.

Consider co-occurring disorders

The likelihood of a mental illness diagnosis doubles for individuals who are suffering from a substance abuse disorder, which is why it is important to have an open conversation with your loved one about mental illnesses and watch out for potential warning signs. As they might be more willing to talk about their depression or anxiety with you or a professional than speak directly about their addiction, this can be a good way for your loved one to get some help that can ultimately lead to positive changes in their substance abuse.

Have patience and understanding

While it’s completely reasonable to expect recovery, you should always be prepared for relapse. Although some people are lucky enough to achieve long-term recovery on their first attempt, for others it might take multiple attempts over several years. Whatever the case, try to be patient with your loved one’s progress and don’t be afraid to be optimistic – substance abuse is often referred to as “good prognosis disorder” because the majority of people suffering from it can and do recover.

Overcoming addiction is a balancing act between offering support to your loved one in navigating their treatment and recovery, while at the same time not losing sight of what you need in order to be healthy and happy.

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