As someone living with a drug or alcohol user, you may find yourself in a position of wanting to help but having no real knowledge of what to do. You are not alone. Drug and alcohol use and abuse is something that is not widely understood outside of the medical and psychology communities. Nevertheless, rest assured there are some very definite things you can do to help your loved one.

We’ll go through some of those things in the subsequent paragraphs. However, before we do, it needs to be made clear that the suggestions we offer are in relation to substance use or abuse. If you are dealing with an addiction scenario, your loved one has already reached the point where very little you do will help him or her. For purposes of clarity, let us define the three stages of drug and alcohol use:

  1. Casual Use – This first stage, also known as recreational use, is typified by regular use of alcohol or drugs as part of a normal lifestyle. While substances are not abused, they are used on a regular basis and for very specific purposes.
  2. Abuse – An abuse scenario is defined as one in which the user drinks or takes drugs too often and in quantities above what is normally considered safe. An example of an abuser would be someone who binge drinks more than once or twice every few months. An abuser is right on the edge of losing control.
  3. Addiction – Also known as dependence, addiction is a scenario in which the user no longer has control over how often or how much he or she uses. Drugs and alcohol increasingly become the most dominant factor in their daily life. If your loved one has reached the stage of addiction, only professional intervention will help him or her recover.

With these definitions in hand, let us discuss the things you can do for a loved one who is either a substance user or abuser.

The Cycle of Change

The suggestions we are about to offer are based on something known as the ‘trans-theoretical model’ developed by researchers at the University of Rhode Island in 1977. This psychotherapeutic model is more commonly known in drug addiction circles as the ‘Cycle of Change’.

It is called the cycle of change because most drug and alcohol users follow a similar pattern before being able to successfully change their behaviours. What family members do to help depends on where in the cycle the individual is. The cycle is divided into six separate stages:

  1. pre-contemplation
  2. contemplation
  3. preparation
  4. action
  5. maintenance
  6. relapse.

Stage 1 Pre-Contemplation

In this first stage, the user does not recognise he or she has a problem with drugs or alcohol. Moreover, because he or she doesn’t recognise it, they do not see any need to change their behaviour. In this stage, it is useless for family members to confront the individual about his or her drug or alcohol use. Not only will they not believe what they are told, they may be led to emotions of anger, bitterness, and resentment.

The most appropriate thing family members can do in this stage is protect themselves against any potential harm the behaviour of the user exposes them to. If harm does occur, it is certainly appropriate to make the user aware of what they have done.

Stage 2 Contemplation

When the user enters the contemplation stage, he or she has reached the point where they are considering the possibility that their behaviour might be destructive to them self and others. They are now in a position where they are aware of the situation and considering whether they need to change their behaviour. Keep in mind that even in this stage he or she is still using drugs or alcohol regularly.

Family members can help during this stage by offering emotional support. That support might include casually discussing services the individual might avail him or herself off should they decide to change their ways. This stage also includes continuing to limit the harm done by the user in your own life and the lives of the rest of your family members.

Stage 3 Preparation

When the drug or alcohol user makes a conscious decision to change his or her habits, they have now entered the preparation stage. They will begin making changes in order to prepare them self to stop using whatever substances they are struggling with.

Helping the individual during the preparation stage includes continuing to offer support and encouragement. Part of that support is openly recognising the fear and anxiety the user might be dealing with, and offering to provide the necessary shoulder to lean on in order to get through.

Stage 4 Action

The action stage is characterised by very definite steps the user takes to bring about a change of behaviour. Steps may be as drastic as pouring every drop of alcohol down the sink or as minimal as making the commitment to not consume alcohol in the home. Remember that every action point will likely be difficult for the user regardless of how simple it seems to you.

Family members can be of assistance during the action stage by acknowledging the behaviour through positive response. You can encourage the user to keep working at it, congratulate him or her when they succeed, and continue to offer a listening ear and shoulder to lean on.

Stage 5 Maintenance

The fifth stage in the process is known as the maintenance stage. You will recognise this stage because you will notice a definite change in the behaviour of your loved one. Either he or she has significantly reduced the amount and frequency of use, or they have given it up altogether. They are now in that stage where they struggle to keep the commitment they have made.

The maintenance stage requires family members to be supportive in a number of ways. First of all, it means recognising those things that trigger alcohol or drug use and doing whatever you can to avoid them. Second, strained family relationships need to be addressed during this stage. Families need to understand that ceasing drug and alcohol use will not automatically repair relationships that have been damaged. They need to accept that and, when appropriate, engage in joint counselling to repair the damage done. Honesty and openness is an important part of helping during the maintenance stage.

Stage 6 Relapse

The final stage is often the most difficult to deal with because it is the most misunderstood. It is the stage of relapse. Unfortunately, very few drug and alcohol users are able to maintain permanent abstinence from the moment they start stage 5. Most relapse at least a couple of times before completely overcoming. A relapse can be as minor as having a single drink with dinner or as major as a full-blown binge.

Helping during the relapse stage includes once again limiting the harm the relapse might cause the rest of the family. It also includes recommending effective therapy that will limit the damage and help the user overcome the relapse. The family might also need support counselling in order to deal with the let-down that often accompanies relapse.

Things to Remember

We have provide you with a lot of information regarding the Cycle of Change. Nonetheless, we want to remind you that the six stages and suggestions of how you can help are only a general guideline. Every drug and alcohol user is an individual with his or her own unique personality and characteristics. Anything you choose to do by way of help should be done with the knowledge that not every action is successful for every user.

Also remember:

  • Only the drug or alcohol user can make the choice to stop using and come clean. If that user has already reached the level of addiction, stopping will be nearly impossible without proper treatment.
  • Treatment for addiction is available through the NHS, private clinics, and drug and alcohol charities.
  • The family is an important part of the support structure a drug or alcohol user needs to fully recover. Make sure your family is supportive rather than condemning.
  • Families also need support themselves by way of counselling, advice, strategy building, and general comfort. Put as much effort into finding help for your family as you do finding help for your loved one who is using drugs or alcohol.

Helping your loved one to overcome a drug or alcohol problem requires that you understand, at least to some extent, the process of use, abuse and addiction. There is plenty of information and research available all across the Internet. There is also help by way of counselling and professional advice.

Addiction Helper is here to make sure you get that counselling and advice. Our addiction helpline is staffed by professionals with the knowledge and experience necessary to get you going in the right direction. Please avail yourself of it. We promise not to pass judgment on you or your family, lecture you over the phone or otherwise diminish who you are. We only want to help.

All of our services are absolutely confidential and totally free, for the benefit of users and their families. Help for family, friends, and close ones is just as important as the help people suffering with addiction need. Seek support to find the right path.