It’s true that there’s only so much you can do to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. But you can take steps to tilt the balance in the right direction by encouraging a partner, child, friend or relative who’s struggling with an addiction to get into treatment.
Remember: “It’s okay to ask a loved one to get help. Often people are hesitant to call attention to a problem; they see it or they suspect something is wrong, but they’re reluctant to address it directly,” says Christeine Terry, PhD, a psychologist specializing in addiction and mental health difficulties in Seattle. You should speak up, she says, but before you do, it’s wise to take some preparatory steps. Here’s what to do:
Step 1: Become familiar with local resources. Start by asking your doctor for a referral to a therapist who specializes in addiction or look for a support group (perhaps through SMART Recovery® or Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-step spin-offs, depending on what the problematic substance or behavior is) in your area, Dr. Terry suggests. This way, you’ll be armed with ideas when you broach the subject with your loved one.
Step 2: Say something when you see something. “If you think your loved one is using, it’s okay to ask directly,” Terry says. You might say, “I’m concerned about you and I want you to get help.” How you say it is important, so stick with statements that begin with “I”, describe what you see and what your concerns are, then be specific about what you want from the person, as in the example above.
Step 3: Seize windows of opportunity. There are optimal times and places for talking to your loved one about getting treatment. “Any time someone expresses regret about their use, apologizes for bad behavior they’ve engaged in when under the influence or talks about feeling stressed, depressed or anxious, that’s a good time to suggest finding someone to talk to about these issues,” Terry says. Likewise, if your loved one expresses curiosity about a 12-step program, that’s another good opening to encourage him or her to check one out.
Step 4: Present effective motivational hooks. “Family members are experts on their loved ones and know what might get them into treatment,” notes Terry. To find the right incentive, imagine stepping into the shoes of the person you love and think about what would motivate him or her to stop using and get help. Maybe it’s a desire to get back into certain hobbies or activities they once enjoyed but have given up. Perhaps it’s a matter of wanting to advance further in his or her career or change careers or a desire to improve the marriage. For example, if there’s been marital discord related to your loved one’s drinking, you might point out that you know you haven’t been getting along very well, that you think your partner’s drinking is a part of the cause and you think it would be a good idea for the two of you to get some help for that.
“This is not typically a one-time conversation,” Terry stresses. “Often the person will get defensive or angry. You need to be persistent and approach this again and again and offer to help.” (This is the perfect time to share the resources you found in step 1.)
Step 5: Reward sober behaviors. When a loved one abstains from the addictive behavior, use positive reinforcement to encourage the pattern to continue — ideally, without drawing attention to what you’re doing. Rather than connecting your suggestion of taking a walk together or going to a show or to hear live music (or whatever appeals to your loved one’s interests) to abstinence, make it more of a casual treat so it’s not viewed as a bribe or a conditional suggestion, Terry says. “This provides an opportunity for positive interaction between the two of you” — and hopefully your loved one will connect the dots between being sober and this kind of positivity.
On the other hand, there may be times that call for doing the opposite — engaging in what Terry calls the “big freeze” — if your loved one shows up under the influence. “Even negative attention is highly rewarding so you want to withdraw your attention by saying, ‘I don’t like being around you when you’re drinking; I’m not going to stay,’” she explains. The key is to then follow through and leave the scene.
Step 6: Take care of yourself. Helping a partner, child, friend or relative get into treatment can feel like a grueling, obstacle-laden marathon (highly stressful!) so it’s important to prioritize getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and getting support for yourself throughout the journey. “It’s like the saying, ‘You have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can do it for another person,’” Terry says. “Taking care of yourself first makes you a more effective helper.”