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Help me I love an addict! What do I do, my _______is an addict, is something that I hear every day. People call my phone in tears, desperate for answers. Unfortunately, there is tons of information, much of which comes out of the mouths of people who just do not know what they are saying, or they have been programmed to say things that, I believe are damaging and lack empathy and understanding. So, what does a person do when they love someone whose life is spinning out of control. They report to me that their home lives are difficult, their loved one lies and are secretive, their behavior seems odd, they believe they are being lied to. First, I would remind you, that you do not love “an addict”, rather you love a person who is a son, or a husband, daughter, or wife (etc.). This is a person you love. Not just ” an addict. ” I believe we make it far too easy to forget that this “addict” is a human being, in need of support, love, and assistance.
We often forget, or neglect to include the person we are trying to help into the conversation/ plans about how best to help them. We have heard or read that people who use drugs are not able, or for whatever reason, or are in too much denial, to discuss their substance use honestly with anyone else. I have found that this is not usually the case. The dishonesty that people who use drugs usually engage in comes from a place of fear. When we tell the truth —-we are punished. If sharing honestly is met with judgement and harsher consequence then your loved one will never ever be honest. Honest dialogue is a great place to start, but make sure you are ready to hear the truth. Sometimes we would rather not know the truth and if that is the case we need to acknowledge this. Make sure you are ready to hear honestly what is going on. Can you handle it? What would be too much for you to hear?
I grew up in the era of “Tough Love” and was sent to a Cattle Ranch in Utah. Then a combination of hospitals, halfway houses, and meetings all of which reinforced the self hatred that was eating away at my soul. The prospect of my experimenting with drugs, which most teenagers do, was so terrifying to my parents, that a cattle ranch, across the country, whose pamphlet said: “We are not trying to torture the youth, we simply want to bring them back to traditional values and beliefs,” seemed like a therapeutic and reasonable response to my behavior . WOW! This, I believe is the result of fear based drug education that is part of our drug war culture. Well educated, well meaning people believe that “Super predators created from excessive drug use are real and that one hit of crack will leave you addicted to the point of no return. This of course, we know is absolutely false, along with the myth of crack babies, and so much of the other drug education we have been fed. Some information out there for families is really awful and dated. They tell family members that the only way to help drug users is to practice tough love. In fact, families are often told that if they do not act with tough love they will kill their loved one. They suggest throwing the person out of the home and creating a situation that is unbearable for the person. They believe this will bring about a “bottom”. They suggest creating a bottom, because another of the myths we have been fed is the idea that every person who is addicted must “reach a bottom”. The idea is that when we finally experience something truly painful, we will see the light and this will motivate change. THIS IS NOT MY EXPERIENCE and behavior change scientific research agrees with me.
Pain immobilizes me and causes depression and a deep desire to disappear or escape from the pain. Also, if you send someone who is not equipped to live on the streets out to the streets with no survival skills, do not expect that person to come home the same person. Many times the trauma we experience during chaotic substance use further exacerbates our need for drugs.
Remember you love a person. You love someone who is much more than just an addict. If you start seeing them as an addict you will struggle to see them as a human again. If they were only an addict then all of this would be easy, you could just leave.
You love a person who is struggling with substance misuse and probably a number of other issues. Unfortunately, there is terrible information floating around about how to best cope with a person whose life seems to be falling apart due to chaotic substance use that is dangerous and causes people further harm. Now, I don’t believe in tough love, but that does not mean I believe in permissive lifestyles that result in abusive behavior. Every person is different that is one of the most important things to consider. Just because someone is struggling with drugs does not make them like every other person on the planet who is struggling with substance misuse. There may be some similarities in behavior, but urge strongly against cookie cutter approaches.
Sometimes a person lands in jail and the family will think, well maybe this is an opportunity to create change:
NEVER EVER ASSUME THAT IF YOUR LOVED ONE IS IN JAIL THEY ARE SAFE. In my opinion this is absolutely never, ever true. It may feel like you are getting a break and can rest easier, but you are resting easier due to a commonly held misunderstanding of jail and a deep misunderstanding of withdrawal. If your loved one is addicted to opiates, depending on how much he or she uses will have a great deal to due with what they are about to experience. First, it is simply not true that no one dies of opiate withdrawal. Yes, it is not something that happens a great deal, but there is a reason that a facility must meet significant number of qualifications to run a detox facility. Detoxing off drugs is very taxing on a heavy users body. Here is a link to another blog I wrote describing withdrawal. I guess you can think about whether this is something you think would be appropriate to do in an area with 20 plus people watching. http://ncurbansurvivorunion.org/2015/12/22/dope-sick-not-exactly-flu-like-symptoms/
I have done it and it was truly awful. I really did want to die. Jails often do not provide people with enough water or fluids to stay hydrated while they are sweating, throwing up and having catastrophic diarrhea. If your loved one is in jail and in withdrawal I recommend looking at this as a dangerous situation.
The myth of hitting bottom. I do not believe that people must hit a bottom to change. Pain does not create nor manifest change for me. Now, initially we feel pain in our lives and this alerts us that something is not right. I get this, but once the pain keeps coming, people are not usually properly motivated for change. In fact, if the problems feel too overwhelming, they become something you feel you can’t change. You just stop trying to make things better. You begin do do things outside of your morality, you just allow yourself to fall apart. This has been a pretty awful place for me to live.
People think: Maybe they need to reach a bottom so they can change. You see you are operating under the ideology that your loved one is not already in a shit ton of pain. More pain simply makes things more unbearable, it does not offer any solution for moving out of the difficult situation. Passion is the best emotion for dealing with pain. Think about it. When I lost my daughter that brought more pain than I ever thought I would be able to handle. The only thing that helps me is to do positive stuff in her name and try and make a difference for others. That passion keeps me from sinking into my pain. Reaching a bottom is something people say, that for me, it is just not true.
Think about it. What behavior in your life have you tried to change but mostly been unsuccessful? Exercise? Eating Healthy? Losing Weight? Wanting to change, knowing you need to change, knowing you are going to lose everything if you don’t change are all not what creates and sustains behavior change. I have literally been sitting on my bed praying with all my might to not use drugs, to loose the desire to use drugs, and at the exact same time be calling for drugs. Change requires a mixture of motivating factors (I recommend positive motivating factors) and a supportive environment.
If opiates are the source of the trouble then scientific evidence and my experience both show that a combination of medication assisted treatment and a harm reduction health coaching show the most successful results. The health coach can help them make small positive changes and set small realistic goals. I have used this method myself and I believe this makes the most sense. If other drugs seem to be the source of the problem harm reduction still offers an amazing path for change. Small steps make a big difference.
When I was growing up there were not harm reduction organizations or syringe exchanges. I was only offered one recovery choice. This was abstinence from all mind and mood altering drugs. I did not want that option. You see, I was using drugs because I could not bear life without drugs, how in the world was I going to make a decision to quit using all substances when I felt I could not bear life without them?
There are answers out here for dealing with chaotic substance use, chaotic drug use, drug use, experimentation, but we need to make sure that the answers make sense. First things first. If the answers seem too easy, well they are. There is nothing simple about behavior change and no one changes someone else’s behavior without them being involved. Behavior change is a highly personal process that requires commitment from the person who who is in need of the change. Without their input, without their desire, (true desire) the change will never be realized. Anyone who is using drugs can benefit from interaction with a harm reduction organization. This is a good place to start.