Talking to a loved one about their drug use can be hard.
An alcohol or other drug problem in the family can impact relationships, work, lifestyle, as well as mental and physical health, so it’s common for friends or family to feel frustrated, upset, or even scared. All families are different, and everyone has different ways of coping. If you’re worried that a loved one is struggling, the best thing you can do is get the facts.
Why it’s important to talk about drugs
While there may be more fear around illegal drugs, legality does not make something safe. In fact, alcohol is the drug with the biggest impact on families in Australia, and prescription painkillers are the leading cause of drug overdose deaths. Around 1 in 20 Australians have a drug use problem.
If someone is using a drug for longer than planned, continuing to use despite having problems, or requiring a greater amount to feel the same effects, they may have a dependency. This means that even if they want to quit, it can still be very difficult.
While many people may use drugs for fun, everyone is different, and some may use them to try and cope with anxiety or depression, to reduce stress, treat pain, or as a response to trauma. Rather than being the ‘problem’, drug use may actually be someone’s ‘solution’ to another problem. This is why it’s important to talk, find out why someone uses, and find a better solution.
Communication is key
When trying to start a conversation about drug use, effective communication is key. First of all, try to choose a time when they’re not intoxicated. Treat them with respect, like an adult, and try to remain non-judgemental. Regardless of age, no one wants to be spoken down to. Instead, try asking questions, listening, and finding out how they’re feeling, why they use, and the problems they’ve faced. Instead of telling someone how they’re being impacted, try telling them how it’s impacting you – use ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ statements.
Encourage them to see a doctor or counsellor, but if they’re not yet willing to seek help, don’t worry. Although it may be hard, focus on your relationship first, build trust, look for ways to reduce harm, and show that you’re here to support them when they’re ready. Acknowledge that it can be difficult for them, don’t push them, and always keep lines of communication open. Evidence shows that when families are involved in treatment, the results are better for everyone.
So your loved one is ready to make a change, what now? When fighting any drug or mental health issue, identifying and connecting with friends, family, and health services that can offer support is vital. While a professional can better guide treatment, you can help with problem solving and offer ongoing encouragement. You should recognise not only the positive steps, but also the difficulties they face along the way.
When someone with a dependency is trying to cut back or quit, their body and mind may suffer from withdrawal symptoms. They may appear depressed, have trouble sleeping, or be highly irritable. Understand that making a change is hard, and try to encourage healthy habits around exercise, diet, and sleep to aid their well-being along the way.
A slip-up is not a failure
If while trying to quit your loved one starts using again, while you may feel angry or frustrated, recognise it as a learning opportunity rather than a failure. Everyone’s process is going to be different, and hardly anyone’s recovery is ever perfect.
The effect on families
But before progress can be made, if you live in the same household, it’s important to ensure your safety by setting boundaries around what is and isn’t okay. Don’t make threats, but rather communicate realistic consequences that you and your family will actually follow through with. Set limits around use and encourage safe habits, such as not driving after using a drug. The way you explain your boundaries is also important. Instead of saying ‘be home by 6pm or else…’ you could try saying ‘dinner is served at 6pm for those who are home.’
Boundaries are not only good for recovery, but also as a way to look after other family members. For example, a child may not feel safe if a family member is drunk or using drugs around them. It’s therefore important to listen to children when making decisions that affect them, and to include them, talk to them, and play with them to reduce stress.
But overall, if you’re concerned about a loved one’s drug use, or you use drugs yourself, self-care is vital. This means staying connected with friends and family, continuing healthy hobbies that bring you joy, making plans for the future, and generally maintaining hope. Managing stress in these situations can be difficult for everyone involved – the ‘stress bucket’ model explains why
Breakthrough for Families Queensland (BFFQ) is a free program from Drug ARM that helps families and significant others impacted by another person’s alcohol or other drug use. Families can access free community information sessions as well as tailored individual support. For more information call the BFFQ Intake and Information Service on 07 3620 8880, visit www.breakthroughforfamiliesqld.org.au