As a caregiver, do you know if you are operating from accurate information and knowledge about addiction? There are myths and misinformation about addiction that can lead you astray when you want to support someone with an addiction. Unfortunately, this misinformation can actually prevent some people from seeking treatment.
There is a great deal of reliable information about both the signs and symptoms of addiction and treatment options. As a starting point, you may want to consider the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s online, 20 minute tutorial entitled Addiction 101. You can also receive free information through the Ontario Drug and Alcohol Helpline by calling 1-800-565-8603 or 1-519-439-0174 from outside Ontario.
- loss of control of amount or frequency of use
- compulsion to use
- use despite consequences
What are the consequences?
The consequences can range from mild to severe and as you can see from this list provided by CAMH, they can affect every aspect of a person’s life:
- injuries while under the influence
- feelings of anxiety, irritability, or depression
- trouble thinking clearly
- problems with relationships
- spending money on substances rather than on food, rent, or other essentials
- legal problems related to substance use
- loss of hope, feelings of emptiness
Keep reading for some facts about addiction that are relevant to caregiving.
Addiction is not a choice.
While the initial behaviour was obviously a choice, people do not set out to become addicted nor do they choose to develop an addiction. A brain’s chemistry is affected by extended use of addictive substances. People can also develop an addiction without even being aware or realizing it (hence the denial of the addiction).
As best you can, help the person realize that addiction is a real medical condition.
Addiction is not about a lack of willpower, poor morality, or weak character.
As stated above, addiction literally changes our brain’s chemistry. Has the person you are caring for ever tried to quit and was unsuccessful? That isn’t about lack of willpower. It is about the power of the addiction. People from all walks of life can struggle with addiction, from Veterans to CEOs of successful companies.
Please note that judging, preaching, or lecturing the person with the addiction is singularly unhelpful. It can result in (further) shame and embarrassment which can make it even more difficult to seek treatment and it can set up a power struggle between the two of you.
The person with the addiction may believe certain myths about addiction and think that getting help may actually be a sign of weakness. That is, the person may feel that they should be able to stop the use of alcohol or drugs on their own and be able to “handle it.” If they can’t, they may see themselves as weak and a failure. This can, in turn, create a sense of shame in the person which can lead to an attempt to hide the addiction and/or reluctance to seek professional help.
It is unrealistic to expect that the person can “just stop.” Also, the problem is less about stopping and more about not starting again!
Substance abuse and addiction often co-exist with other medical conditions.
Substances may have been used to “self-medicate” or manage physical and/or mental and emotional pain. Substance use and abuse can be concurrent with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and chronic pain to name a few. It is important for the person to seek medical help. All of these conditions need to be treated by a health care professional.
If a person is thinking of suicide, substances will increase the chances that they will harm themselves or die by suicide. If you are concerned that the person you are caring for is having suicidal thoughts or has suicidal behaviour, please reach out for help. If the risk is immediate, call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number.
There is no one-size-fits-all treatment.
The most effective way to determine the best treatment option(s) is for the person with the addiction to complete a full assessment with an addictions specialist. There are more resources and knowledge about addiction, treatment, and the recovery process than there has ever been. Relying on willpower alone rarely works in the long run and there are usually underlying mental or emotional issues. These underlying issues can be addressed as part of the treatment.
Recovery is often a life-long process and relapses are common. It is not that the person isn’t committed to recovering and they just haven’t been trying hard enough. Relapses are better understood as indicators of the power of the addiction. It may be that the treatment plan needs to be revised, changed, or even developed if the person was attempting to quit on their own.
Family, friends, and caregivers can help someone with an addiction.
You can help by providing reassurance and information. You can also encourage the person to seek appropriate professional help. You can start with a nurse practitioner or family doctor who may in turn make a referral to drug and alcohol specialists. Partners and close family members are often involved in treatment.
Research has shown that family and friends not only assist the person to seek professional help, but also act as a source of support which can also help reduce the chances of a relapse. REMEMBER, however, that you do not have the power to stop a person from using substances if they are not interested in stopping or attempting to stop.
Support groups can be a great source of information as well as support. For the person with the addiction, there is Alcoholics Anonymous and/or Narcotics Anonymous. For families and friends, there is Al-Anon (for families of someone addicted to alcohol), Nar-Anon (for families of someone addicted to narcotics), Alateen (for adolescent children of someone with an alcohol addiction), and ACA (for adult children of someone with an alcohol addiction).
Recovery is possible.
While addictions can really compromise a positive attitude and hope about the future, recovery from any and all addictions is possible. There are many pathways to initiate and sustain recovery. Treatment of addiction works. In a recent Canadian survey about life in recovery after addiction, 91% of the people in recovery reported that their quality of life was either excellent, very good, or good after recovery was initiated. This offers hope for those living with addiction and for those caring for and supporting someone with an addiction. If you are interested in reading this full report, go to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction’s website to access the report entitled Life in Recovery from Addiction in Canada which is available in both English and French.