If you love someone who struggles with substance, you may be facing increased stress during the pandemic. Maybe you are sheltering in place with the person you are concerned about and coming face to face with the fall out of their use of substances. Maybe you have not been able to have contact with your loved one and are facing worry and feeling out of control.
We hope you can find ways to hold onto hope and we know you can be a hugely powerful force in helping your loved one shift their motivation towards positive change. While you might be tempted to express your upset by confronting your loved one or slamming a few doors to make your point, years of research suggest that this type of direct confrontation does not work. In fact it can push them in exactly the opposite direction from what you want.
It can be helpful to understand that using substances is a motivated behavior with an expected outcome. Drugs and alcohol work in many different ways for people, for some they reduce anxiety or depression in the short term. Or they quiet nightmares, or increase social confidence, or numb out feelings of loss. These are the effects that reinforce continued use. Your loved one is not using because they are defective or wanting to provoke you. They are using because the substance gives them something they feel that they need.
Understanding this can help you take take it less personally which will reduce tension in your home and in your mind. A reduction in tension never hurt anyone and with a calmer brain you can start to think through how else some of these needs could be met without substances. It can also help you realize that, when a behavior feels like it is working, if even in the short term, there will be ambivalence about giving it up.
If you take all of this into consideration you can turn to the things you can influence. How you talk about the problem and how you act in response to it matter a lot and are under your control. Learning to communicate positively, respectfully and collaboratively takes practice but can change the whole atmosphere of your household or relationship. When you can start to have conversations about the problem without blow ups or shut downs, things can start to change. You can also help by noticing the positive actions your loved one takes since most of your attention understandably has been focused on all that they are doing wrong. It’s normal to focus on what is going wrong when you are angry or frightened, but it does not compete much with the reinforcing qualities of the substance use. Starting to reward and notice any positive steps toward the healthy behavior you hope to see can be like watering a parched plant. As the water is absorbed the plant starts to thrive. When noticing good behavior is combined with letting “natural consequences” play out and shape your loved one’s behavior, you can create a world in which positive change can take place.
The most important thing you can do however is to take care of yourself through all this. Helping someone you care about navigate a problematic relationship with substances is not typically a short term sprint, and is sometimes a marathon. You need to take care of yourself regularly and methodically to keep the tank fueled up and functioning well if you are going to be there at the finish line, and continue to help them get there. This is especially hard for parents to hear, and again this is why family is so powerful: you’ll always go that extra mile no matter what, when no one else would. We want you to respect and care for that compassion and energy you bring..it’s your most valuable resource.
These ideas are not just our good ideas; they are research tested and proven, and they are a roadmap for families to use. There is reason to be optimistic…change takes knowledge, practice, patience, being willing to try new things, and taking care of yourself. We hope you find these tools useful in your journey.