by Priya Sharma, Mental Health & Addictions Counsellor, Tsartlip First Nation –
Providing support to a loved one dealing with a substance use disorder (more commonly known as addiction) can be exceptionally challenging. Unless you work in the field or have lived experience, it can be difficult to navigate conversations about substance use and set healthy boundaries that support their recovery whilst respecting your own needs.
Here are some tips I have gathered over the years working as an addictions counsellor and supporting my loved ones struggling with an addiction, to help you feel more comfortable engaging in difficult conversations. This is not meant to be a master plan for how conversations “ought to be.” We are all unique, with different needs, making it impossible to create a magic script that works for all of us. Have an open mind as I share a perspective less seen.
First, let’s talk about how our knowledge influences our communication. Society often blames people for their addiction as if it is a moral failure on the individual’s part. Negative biases like people with addictions are selfish, lazy, and destructive still exist. These stereotypes can influence how people struggling with substance use disorder feel about themselves and their strength to recover.
Before speaking to your loved one, make sure you understand that addiction is a disease. The more knowledge you have about addiction, the better you’ll be able to communicate. When going into conversations with your loved ones about their substance use, keep in mind that addiction is a treatable disease that does not define who they are. Their addiction does not have to be the focus of every conversation you have. Speak from your heart, remind them of their strengths and that they are so much more than their addiction.
Johann Hari said: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.” Looking at addiction from this perspective, we can see how isolated and disconnected someone struggling with substance use disorder feels. When supporting someone’s sobriety, focus less on the substance use itself and more on including the person in healthy community/family activities as often as you would anyone else. We all know how good it feels to be included!
Lastly, please take care of yourself. Supporting someone struggling with addiction is an overwhelming process filled with feelings such as confusion, frustration and helplessness. Compassion fatigue is a normal experience. Incorporate self-care in your daily routine and take time to recharge when you need it. Remember, you are supporting someone’s journey, but you are not responsible for the outcome. Everyone must learn to recover for themselves, with your support. You can’t do their recovery for them.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with an addiction, please visit www.Canada.ca to view all the resources available to you for free. Family members of individuals struggling with an addiction also have access to lots of free resources like Al-Anon support groups and family and individual counselling.