Many recovering addicts have a story about hitting bottom, which chronicles the turning point, when they decided to change their lives.
It’s a compelling concept, this idea that at some point the addict’s descent will be halted, clarity will emerge and the only way left will be up. But it’s also a dangerous one. For some addicts, there is no bottom — just a continuing series of descents that all too often end in tragedy.
When someone we love is struggling with addiction, the correct time to encourage them to seek treatment is the second we realize there is a problem. We simply don’t have the luxury of waiting for a rock bottom experience that will wake the person up to the danger and the need to seek help. That moment may never come.
When a person is active in addiction, the brain has essentially been hijacked; they often don’t want help, don’t want to admit to the addiction and are highly motivated to do whatever is necessary to keep using. The thought of treatment, especially inpatient treatment away from the comfort of the drug of choice, can be terrifying.
We may back off in this scenario because we believe the situation is hopeless. After all, if that “aha” moment never comes and the addicted person isn’t even willing to admit there is a problem, how can we logically expect improvement, even if we did manage to convince them to seek treatment?
The good news about rock bottom
While it is true that the addicted person is ultimately the only one who can change their own life, there is good news: Even if resistant to treatment, a person struggling with addiction will often find their mindset changes once part of a program. In fact, studies show that treatment does not have to be voluntary to be effective. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, even addicts who are compelled to enter treatment through the courts have just as much chance of success as those who enter voluntarily.
In short, you can’t force the addicted person to change, but you can encourage them to want to change. And that desire to change will often kick in after treatment has begun. In some cases, simply removing the person from the environment that triggered use and helping them to envision the possibility of a different life is enough to get them started toward recovery.
How to help an addicted loved one
- Help them understand that they have a disease, one likely brought on in part by genetics and environmental factors and not by weakness or moral failing. And like all diseases, it needs to be treated.
- Let them know you’ve got their back. Make it clear that you’ll be part of their treatment, taking advantage of any programs or family therapy that might assist their recovery. This is especially important for adolescents.
- Help them to look beyond their addiction. Ask what they might do if they were not using. Get them thinking about a different life than the one that is currently causing such pain.
- Anticipating detox can cause panic. Let them know that medical care is available to help them through the process. Medication can also aid in long-term recovery. For example, naltrexone has been shown to help those addicted to alcohol or opioids (such as heroin) reduce use and stabilize their lives.
- Let them know that alternate therapies exist as part of established programs, including equine therapy, neurofeedback and meditation, to name a few. Therapy with animals can be particularly appealing to the young.
- Encourage them to keep an open mind about the possibility that good things can happen once in the program.
- Most important of all, make it clear that the earlier they get help, the easier the detox, the less damage to the brain and body, and the better the chances of a successful outcome.
The search for addiction treatment
You can also help by researching treatment options and being prepared to take your loved one to a program immediately. Not sure where to start? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) maintains a website that shows the location of residential, outpatient and hospital inpatient treatment programs for drug addiction and alcoholism throughout the U.S. The same information is available by calling 1-800-662-HELP.
When comparing, look for programs that use evidence-based practices that are founded on scientific research and that include multidisciplinary teams of addiction counselors, physicians, nurses, nutritionists and mental health professionals. Avoid tough-love programs that use shame to inspire change. Remember that addiction is a disease; just as we would never shame a cancer patient, we should never shame someone trying to heal from addiction.
It’s especially crucial that any program you choose be prepared to recognize and address co-occurring mental illnesses. Research shows that as many as 6 in 10 people who abuse drugs or alcohol also suffer from mental health issues, such as depression. Unless both are treated, neither will be.
Relapse does not equal failure
According to research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Most people who get into and remain in treatment stop using drugs, decrease their criminal activity, and improve their occupational, social, and psychological functioning.” The key words are “remain in.”
Getting a loved one into treatment isn’t the end of the process; it’s the beginning. And both you and the person being treated should be prepared for the very real possibility of relapse. In these cases, that doesn’t mean that progress was not made or that there is no hope. It means the individual needs to get back to the heart of the issue and try again. Relapse should not be viewed as failure but as a step in a process that often involves two steps forward and one step back.
Above all, relapse does not mean “I guess he has to hit bottom first.” In fact, the reverse is true. Waiting for a “bottom” means waiting for a more entrenched addiction and a more difficult recovery. It can also mean waiting too long for any help to be possible. The earlier those struggling with addiction are encouraged to reach out for that helping hand, the more likely they are to be able to pull themselves up.
By Kendal Patterson