It is all too common to have a family member who is misusing drugs in some way. If they haven’t been there themselves—and sometimes, even if they have—many folks are at a loss about what to do in response.
Here, I offer 5 essential things you should do if someone in your family is abusing drugs.
1. Educate yourself about addiction.
We see what we know. Thus, until sometime has some knowledge about drug use—the signs and clues that someone might be using, awareness of the lies that often go along with misuse of drugs, and so on—it is easy to simply not see things that are right in front of you.
Consider this vignette: One of my elderly patients told me that when her daughters were teenagers, she and a friend were at a restaurant with their husbands and went to the ladies’ room together. As they entered the restroom, my patient caught a whiff of a familiar scent and said to her friend, “Someone else uses the same perfume that my daughter Mary does.” Her friend turned to her and said, “That’s not perfume. That’s marijuana.”
At the time, my patient knew nothing about illicit drugs and thus was able to overlook what wound up being multiple indications of a serious drug problem in her daughter. Within a few years, almost nothing pertaining to drugs escaped her notice.
If we are not informed, we simply might overlook something that, in fact, is right before our eyes.
2. Do not allow yourself to be abused.
It is all too common for family members of drug users to end up being abused in various ways. Emotional abuse is probably more the norm than the exception, given that irritability and labile moods are common in those who are using drugs. Drug users may decide to steal to support their use, and family members often present the easiest target for theft. I have seen more than one user steal family heirlooms and sell them for drugs. Physical and at times sexual abuse may occur as well.
Drug abuse is no excuse not to take reasonable steps to protect yourself. In some circumstances, authorities may need to be involved. Regardless, I can’t stress enough that individuals should not allow themselves to be abused.
3. Don’t “enable” the behavior by colluding with the user in some way or covering up the abuse.
Allow the user to suffer some of the consequences of his or her drug abuse and do not cover-up or collude with the user. Thus, for example, I would not lie to employers about why the individual can’t come into work, make excuses to creditors, or pay off bills.
If there are limits or boundaries that are in place about curfews, a family budget, expectations of help around the house, and so on, do not give the substance user a free pass to flout those limits. Insist on good, responsible behavior across all realms and call the individual on non-conforming behaviors.
Al-Anon is the biggest support group worldwide for families and loved ones of individuals who are abusing alcohol or drugs and can be a great resource for those seeking to not enable drug using behaviors. (Nar-Anon is similar and focuses on drugs other than alcohol.) These groups are filled with lots of expertise in walking the line between being too soft and totally cutting the individual out of one’s life. (If circumstances are dire enough, at times this drastic step is the only reasonable option—fortunately, these instances are very rare.)
4. If any essential aspect of your own life is in jeopardy, seek professional help.
If you are so beaten down by the drug use in the other person that any essential aspects of your own life is in jeopardy—such as employment, housing, ability to put food on the table, etc.—then you should seek out professional help by any means necessary.
Even if you think you're coping well, it can sometimes be helpful to elicit professional consultation and support when deciding how to proceed with a family member or loved one who is abusing drugs.
5. Attend to your own health and well-being.
Although this might seem selfish, I strongly believe that it is hard to be present for others and be able to make the best decisions possible if you are not ensuring that your own health needs are being met. Thus, eating right, getting enough sleep, exercising, and keeping up your doctor’s appointments—along with attending to all of your other health needs—puts you in the best position possible.
In my book Almost Addicted , I discuss more detailed strategies for dealing with family members who are misusing drugs.