Reaching Out to a Loved One with Substance Use Disorder

Substance use is no small problem. It affects a vast amount of people in lasting and pervasive ways. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 27 million people are problem drug users. Chances are, you are more likely than not to have a loved one who either has, or is currently coping with, addiction.

The cornerstone of addiction is that it continues despite harmful social, interpersonal problems that are exacerbated by substance use. This may also mean that activities like sports, work and time with friends are often cast aside as the addiction becomes worse.

Because of the encompassing nature of addiction and the fact that it draws a person away from friends and family, it also takes them away from the very support system they need to recover. According to Yohan Hari, the author of Chasing the Scream, addiction isn’t just a substance abuse problem. It is also a social problem. Hari goes on to say that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection.

This is precisely why reaching out to someone facing addiction can be so important, but also so difficult. Many of us have no idea where to start, and if the person is close to us, they have likely also done things that have been hurtful to us. So, how do we reach out to them?

Avoid Judgment

One of the most pervasive feelings someone with substance use disorder experiences is shame. They know what they are doing is hurtful, and they also know that, because of this, friends and family look at them differently than they once did. This is also why they keep using, to drown out these feelings. To reach them then, the first step is to avoid judgment. Do not tell them that what they are doing is wrong, stupid or hurtful. Don’t ask them why they are doing it. Just simply let them know that you would like to connect with them.

Provide Reassurance

As Hari notes, those facing addiction can feel incredibly alone and isolated. They are poignantly aware of how they have become more attached to their substance than they have to the people around them. Although they desire connection, they are also afraid of it. Connection brings with it responsibility and consistency, which can feel impossible when battling substance use.

If a person has already lost many friends and family, they may be afraid of losing more, and are always “on the lookout” for signs of abandonment. For this reason, one of the most important things you can do when reaching out to someone is to provide reassurance that you are there for them.

State Your Commitment

Because recovery from a substance use disorder can be a long and messy process, it is normal for someone to fear abandonment should they relapse. Relapse, however, is part of recovery. When reaching out to someone facing substance use, it can be incredibly powerful to state that, even if they relapse on their way to recovery, you will continue to support them.

Use Curiosity

For people who have not experienced substance use issues personally, it can defy logic. A person continues to do something that causes harm to themselves and those around them, and yet they will not stop. It is simply hard to understand. Moreover, because they have probably experienced judgment and criticism, some may feel that sober friends and family can’t understand.

However, a powerful way to begin the process of understanding what underlies an addiction is simply to use curiosity. Statements like, “I’m not sure if I can understand, but I’d like to know what it is like for you when you use your drug, and how it makes you feel,” or “I wonder if it is like anything in my life that may help me understand.” Using curiosity in this way opens the door for communication, empathy and connection.

Make It Okay Not To Understand

It is possible that even after trying to understand what underlies your loved one’s addiction, you still won’t understand. However, this does not mean that you cannot support them. Understanding is helpful and can be incredibly powerful, but it is not requisite for support. Many facing addiction feel that if you don’t “get it” you can’t, or won’t, help them. So, it is important that you tell them directly that you will support them despite not understanding their substance use.

Coping with a loved one’s substance use can be a trying and messy process. It is filled with ups and downs, unexpected challenges and hurt feelings. Yet even given all of that, it is an incredible opportunity to connect with your loved one in a profound way. By supporting them throughout their mental health journey, you lay the groundwork for both recovery and connection.

Claire Nana, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in post-traumatic growth, optimal performance and wellness. She has worked with the recovery population developing wellness programs, in residential fitness camps as a clinical therapist, and in private practice counseling individuals and families. She has written over 30 continuing education courses on a variety of topics, including nutrition and mental health, wound care, post-traumatic growth, motivation and stigma.