What If You Stopped Trying to Get Your Loved One to Admit There’s a Substance Use Problem?

Hope for Families TV | 0 comments

I gotta be honest here. I don’t remember the last time I tried to talk to my mother about her substance use or mental health problems. But that’s probably because they all went the same way, like a broken record.

I’d try to explain. I’d try to be as clear as possible. As logical as possible. As persuasive as possible. Over, and over, and over again.

And every time it would end up with my mother retorting with another whataboutism that I felt like I had to defend, or her claiming that nothing she does is ever good enough and how I should be just be grateful that I had a roof over my head and food to eat.

And each time that happened I’d start to wonder if I was the problem. I honestly couldn’t figure out WHY I couldn’t get through to her. I just kept thinking I had to explain it better.

Now, looking back, I realize I honestly couldn’t have made myself any clearer. It wasn’t my explanations that were the problem. I was my hyper-focus on the problem.

You see, there are two issues with trying to get your loved one to see the problem:

1. The substance use changes the brain such that your loved one doesn’t see the substance as the problem. Their brain now sees the substance as the solution. And no amount of logic is going to change that reality.
2. Their brain can still see that the use is causing problems. And given that the brain now sees the substance as the solution, this causes both confusion and shame that your loved one can no better reconcile than your arguments and logic can change the damage to the brain.

And these two things are why those debates, and even arguments, so rarely work. And this is just so confusing to people because reasonable, rational people would discuss it and try to work it out.

But the damage the substance use has done to the brain has deprived your loved one of the ability to do that like a mature, rational adult.

So what do you do?

The answer is simple in nature, but is often challenging in its implementation.

But the answer comprises of 3 things:

1. Show compassion for their struggles trying to navigate their substance use and the problems it poses for everyone.
2. Whenever and wherever possible, engage with them as a whole person, not just as someone with a substance use problem.
3. Set whatever boundaries you reasonably can around the ways their substance use negatively affects you.

And I’m sure you can see as I list these things that they are easier said than done.

You’re likely angry at the harm their drug or alcohol abuse has caused, so compassion may feel like a huge stretch.

And engaging with them as a whole person may feel impossible because their substance use just sucks all other life out of the room.

And finally, you may have tried to set boundaries in the past only to be met with backlash that you just couldn’t ride out or take care of yourself around.

None of this is possible without Effective Support, so I’m just going quickly mention that my Family Addiction Online Support Community and my 5 Ways to Have a Positive Influence on a Loved One’s Substance Use Program are now available, so feel free to check those out. The links are under the programs tab.

But I’ll add some suggestions for taking some first steps in each of these areas.

When it comes to showing compassion, the most important thing you can do is educate yourself about addiction. I have several resources for doing that on my resources page. The Family Addiction Support community also offers a 15-minute training video on exactly how addiction changes the brain, among other monthly trainings. The 5 Ways Program also offers in-dept education on addiction.

But the bottom line is, if you don’t understand addiction, compassion is damn near possible because the harm the continued substance use does just feels too personal.

As for engaging with your loved one as a whole person, as painful as it is, it’s important to tap into who they were before they started abusing drugs or alcohol.

That person is still in there, deeply buried perhaps, but still there. What kinds of things were they interested in then? Especially, if they still show even any remote interest in those things now, engage them in those things.

But beyond that, wherever possible, just engage with them as a full human being.

If they say something about the weather, dive into that conversation with them, no matter how mundane that may be.

I know you may be saying to yourself, “the weather is hardly the issue right now. You’ve got far, far bigger issues than what’s going one meteorologically out there”, but it won’t be helpful to say that.

The whole point is to remind them that they’re still a human being.

And, just like the compassion, this small gesture helps prevent shame around their use from driving more use.

Helping them remember they’re still a human being subtly suggests there might be something to recover for – all without debates and arguments.

All that compassion, however, doesn’t mean that you should accept the harm that they do. Not at all.

Allowing your loved one to continue to hurt you actually harms them because even as their brain thinks the substance is the solution to life, their brain can also see the damage they do, and that brings on shame which only drives more use because the use temporarily frees them from the shame of the harm they do.

So it’s important to set boundaries around their ability to hurt you. And this is an important distinction. Your boundaries should focus on the harm done, not on the use.

If you do this consistently enough, your loved one will make the connection without directly triggering that part of the brain that believes the substance is necessary, that it is the solution.

So your boundaries should first and foremost on your own self-care and communicating those boundaries in that light.

The boundaries are about you taking care of you, not about you trying to punish or control. You’re just communicating that, if you are subjected to these harmful impacts of their use, then these consequences will be implemented so that you can take care of yourself, and any other family members or people who you responsible for caring for.

And then of course implement them.

So, if they use in such a way that negatively impacts a family gathering , they’ll be asked to leave.

That doesn’t mean your loved one won’t be upset about those boundaries – they likely will, but these kinds of boundaries focus on how the substance use is impacting their behavior rather than the actual substance use itself.

And this distinction is less likely to trigger shame. Rather, it will trigger guilt – the recognition that they did something wrong, rather than that who they are as a person is wrong.

And this is what you want. Healthy guilt around the behavior, but not shame around who they are.

With any luck – because we know there are not guarantees, unfortunately, your loved one will start to problem solve for the behavior that is harming others.

This will likely take some time, but it will can create favorable conditions for your loved one connecting the substance use with the behaviors they feel guilty about and from there start to question whether the substance use is really the answer they’ve been convinced it is.

But having compassion for the disease and treating them as a whole human being is key to this because without those things, it’s going to be easier for their brain to convince them that you’re part of the reason they drink or use, rather then reminding them they have relationships in their lives that it’s worth being present for.

Easier said than done, I know. And shifting these responses to the use requires effective support.

Family addiction has huge impacts on the mental health of family members, so we all need support just to be able to take care of ourselves, let alone shift the way we’ve been responding to the problem.

So, I’d love to hear from you: In what ways might you start to engage with your loved one as a whole human being and pull back from hyper-focus on the drug or alcohol abuse? Share in the comments and I promise I’ll respond.


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