It can often be challenging speaking to a loved one about their substance use. In the past, when we have tried to do so we have most likely met with resistance, denial, and anger. These past experiences and the inertia of the current state of affairs can sometimes make us hesitant. We are watching our loved one slowly descend into the depths of addiction, we feel we have tried all we can to help and yet it seems to not have had an impact. In desperation we have begun investigating treatment options but now don’t know how to approach our loved one on the subject. Caught between fear, desperation, and sadness it can be hard to know how to proceed. In the following article I have attempted to compile a list of tips that can make the seeming mountain into a molehill. This list can be used as a reference point for facilitating open and honest dialog. Any one of the following will prove useful, the more of these tactics one is able to employ the more likely a positive outcome becomes.
1. An Invitation To Interrogate The Truth
Fault finding and blame are to be avoided. Instead we ought to try to invite our loved one, if possible, into a conversation that interrogates the truth and attempts tp create a shared reality.
Communication between any two people can be challenging. Argument and misunderstanding arise when we argue over reality. Effective communication takes place when two people are able to interrogate the truth of a matter. Each has a view of the truth that is filtered through their subjective experience, beliefs, emotions, and values. Neither parties view of the subject is objective, neither is wholly right. In order to create understanding we must invite our partner into a dialogue that interrogates the truth, rather than disputes it. When we are able to interrogate the truth together we have an opportunity to create a shared truth that both can agree on.
First, this should, if possible be a planned conversation. In a time of crisis it is better to have the conversation than not. That said, we should plan to have this conversation at a time when all parties involved will be relaxed, not pressured for time, and are in a good place emotionally. Also, if possible, this conversation should take place in a location that the addict is most likely to feel safe and comfortable. One can begin by saying something like the following:
“I would like to better understand how you’ve been feeling lately…”
“I have become concerned that life is not headed in a positive direction for you, how are you feeling?”
“Can you help me understand…..”
We want to stick to open ended questions that invite explanation from the other party. Avoiding blame, and other tactics that create defensiveness is imperative.
2. Utilizing Authentic, Honest Communication
When emotions are running high, hurt and misunderstanding pervade, and we are feeling raw and rundown, argument, fault finding and blame can be easy to fall into. It takes a high level of emotional intelligence and preparation to avoid these. What the situation calls for is authentic and honest communication. We are attempting to create understanding. We need to share from our side of the street. How we feel, what our experience has been, our view on the situation. As a great friend of mine once shared with me, “we need to stay within our hula hoop.” What he meant by this is that my thinking and my words need to remain focused on my personal experience of a situation while remaining open to acknowledging and validating the other parties claim to their own experience. If we imagine spinning a hula hoop around our hips, I need to be responsible for the part of the shared experience that is taking place within the space of the hula hoop. It is my responsibility to reflect this experience clearly, authentically, and with compassion.
The point of the proceeding is to bring your family to a shared reality. Within which each party in the conversation feels heard, valued, and validated. We are working to avoid arguing over the truth, the facts of the matter. Rather we are working to create an atmosphere of authenticity, and shared truth. If we have done this (in some cases for the first time) we have begun to feel increased empathy and compassion for one another. Use this as a check on your progress. Ask yourself, what does the body language of the participants tell me? Is it open and relaxed? Closed and stressed? Is there eye contact or avoidance behavior? If you have been successful you are well on your way. If not, there are other tools which can be employed which are discussed below.
4. Speaking With Kindness And Connection
Dealing with an addict and the aftermath of their behavior can be extremely challenging. It is easy to allow the addicts behavior to affect our mental and emotional states to the point where we ourselves become withdrawn, angry, and bitter. If this happens it is important to recognize it and to address it within ourselves. We cannot help another if we are not firsts taking care of ourselves. Work to ensure that your emotional needs are being met, you are getting plenty or rest, and are taking care of yourself physically. It is important that you have an outlet to release the emotional pressure living with the addict is creating. Consulting with friends, family members whom are not directly impacted, or membership in a support group can be incredible resources for coping with the situation.
5. Help The Addict Understand The Toll Their Use Is Taking
Addiction is characterized by an inability to perceive accurately the impact one’s behavior is having on those around them. Speaking as an addict myself, I was unaware of the extent to which my choices and behavior was having on those around me. From the outside this may seem incomprehensible yet, it is true. Expressing honestly, and without blame the full scope of the impact that an addicts behavior is having on those he or she loves can be a powerful tool. It is often wise to spend some time prior to expressing this to an addict writing down one’s thoughts on the matter. This will help to ensure that the conversation can happen without rancor or blame. Simply, we want to aim at taking responsibility for our own emotional reality. Additionally, we want to be able to highlight the actual cost associated with living with an addict. For example, I often find myself speaking to mothers and fathers who have become so occupied playing the role of banker, nurse, policeman, that they no longer are able to simply be a parent to a son or daughter.
6. Understanding Leverage
Using “leverage” can be a very effective way to obtain ascent from one who needs treatment. Using leverage amounts to the removal of material support provided by the family to the addict until such time as the addict enters or successfully completes treatment. For example if the family is paying the addicts rent. The continued support of rent can be used as leverage to obtain the addicts assent to enter treatment. Removing material support from an addict can be a powerful tool to motivate a decision to enter treatment.
For many this is their first port of call when trying to help a loved one into treatment. I disagree with this approach. In my experience this sort of consequence driven communication should be used as a last resort. I believe this for several reasons.
First, addicts more than most people crave connection, utilizing leverage or other consequence models of communication inherently create opposition rather than connection. Your loved one is suffering from a brain disease that lies outside their ability to control or comprehend. He or she feels isolated, alone, and desperate. This is true whether or not he or she is able to verbalize these facts. As stated above inviting one into a conversation which shares truth, is full of honest communication, authenticity, and kindness, is to be preferred as it will inherently create connection.
Second, once a consequence is expressed it must be upheld. This has the potential to create increased hardship for the family as a whole. As it now has the dual role of dealing with the addicts behavior and with managing whatever consequences were agreed upon.
If a family elects to utilize a leverage conversation, my preferred language is as follows.
“We can not force you to go to treatment. You are a grown person and you have a right to make choices for your life. However, if you choose not to go to treatment the life you currently know, ….(a detailed explication of material support provided by the family that is at risk should be given) is over, and will not return until you go to treatment.”
7. Utilizing a Professional
Often times loved ones find an addict wholly unapproachable, or unresponsive to our pleas. In these cases it may be necessary to enlist the services of a professional. Many clinicians, therapists, and social workers can provide intervention services. Better still a professional interventionist can be utilized by the family. Interventionists are professionals who have received specialized training on how to help families facilitate these sorts of conversations and help addicts find a new life through therapeutic placement. Professional interventionists help facilitate these conversations with families multiple times a month and as a result possess a wealth of helpful experiences that can be brought to bear on your personal situation. Referral to an interventionist can be obtained from ones doctor, helping professional, or treatment centers.
Remember that the effort to help a loved one get the help they need is not always an event. Often it is a process, sometimes a long one. Be prepared that the first effort may not be a “success”. Stick with it, your loved one’s life may hang in the balance. I was taught many years ago, “no good effort goes unrewarded.” I believe this is true in life in general and in helping addicts in particular.
It is my hope that the above provides a family in crisis with a good starting point to facilitate a conversation with their loved one. It is always advisable in such situations to consult with one or more professionals. If we at Granite Mountain BHC can be helpful to you please don’t hesitate to reach out to us by phone or through our website.