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How Can I Help Someone Who Doesn’t Seem to Want Help?

Very often in addiction treatment we field questions from loved ones – parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends – like “how can I get my loved one to stop?” or “am I enabling my loved one?” But mostly, they ask one particular question: “what can I do to help my loved one?”

Typically, the response to that plea involves a combination of:

  • Setting and holding good boundaries with the addicted family member
  • Supporting and encouraging the addict in their recovery
  • Tapping into supportive community resources for the loved ones themselves

A good analogy for this can be found in the safety presentations seen on any airplane flight. During those presentations, they talk about the masks dropping down from the ceiling in case of a drop in cabin pressure. Flight attendants emphasize that in the event of an emergency, one must put their own mask on first before helping loved ones put on their mask. Logic says that if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be of any help to the ones you love.

Setting and Holding Appropriate Boundaries

Let’s be honest here, addicts can act pretty badly when in the throws of their addiction. They do things out of character that can be baffling, hurtful, and sometimes even criminal. Addicts can be manipulative, too, and have been known to take advantage of the love and concern of those to whom they are closest. They beg and plead and make promises and tug on your heartstrings. 

We know that this kind of behavior is not who they really are, but rather is just a way for the addict to survive another day. But that makes the loved one especially vulnerable to being played by the addict and possibly even enabling the addict to continue their addictive behaviors.

This is where good boundaries come in. Establishing boundaries is especially difficult to do, so if at first things don’t go quite as planned, keep trying. Simply put, a good boundary is saying “no” to the addict’s continuous requests for money. It’s saying “no” to bailing them out of jams again and again.  It’s saying “no” to playing the guilt card.

A woman talks to her family about addiction.

But, it’s also saying “yes” to allowing the addict the gift of experiencing the consequences of their actions and learning from them. It is important to understand that despite what the addict may tell you, saying “no” does not mean that you don’t love and care for them. It merely means that you will love them from a distance, protect yourself from being pulled under with their addiction, and will be ready to take them into treatment when they are receptive to it.

Plant the Seed

You can continue to push, cajole, suggest, and otherwise point the addicted family member in the direction of treatment and recovery. But don’t be surprised if your efforts are met with resistance. The addicted loved one may view all efforts to get them into recovery as a threat to their survival; their addicted brain views the drug not just as a drug, but as something necessary for survival.

A good starting point for any family going through this stage is to contact the behavioral health department of your health insurance provider. Case managers at the insurance provider can provide information on treatment options and facilities in network. They can also provide you with options surrounding medically-assisted treatment.

You may also want to consult with a trusted physician, close friend, or spiritual advisor. You can even check out digital and traditional resources from your local human services agency or United Way. There is a great wealth of information online through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. There you’ll find tips and resources for family members as well as for your loved one with a substance use disorder.

Help Yourself First

Remember the oxygen mask analogy? It’s crucial to ensure that the family stays strong and seeks support for themselves, too. Maintaining family well-being allows the family to help themselves and their addicted loved one.

Many of the resources suggested above (e.g. samhsa.gov) are also a great source of information for family members seeking support. In addition, there are peer-based support groups, such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, which provide guidance from others who have “been there and done that”. Their experience of what works, how to set boundaries, and how to support the addict without enabling is without parallel. You can find local meeting information on both of their websites.

A person holds hands with a family member for comfort.

Know You’re In It Together

Addiction takes a toll not just on the addict but the family as well. Anxiety and sleep deprivation over a loved one can take its physiological and emotional toll on a family. While the first step of the 12-step plan states that we are powerless over another, we can remain hopeful that our struggling loved one will take heed of the push to get help. We must be relentlessly faithful and hopeful – and never give up on our loved ones.

If someone you love is struggling with addiction, Malvern Treatment Centers can help. Learn more about our treatment programs and our Recovery Oriented Community that provides support for both those in recovery and their families.

By: Phil Gentile, JD, CADC

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