As a family member or friend, you play a critical role in supporting and advocating for someone who needs help. Addiction, like other chronic diseases, often requires treatment and support over many years. If you’re concerned about a loved one’s opioid use, it’s important to know the warning signs of problematic drug use, when to start a conversation, and how to provide support.
Watch for the signs
Sometimes, it may not be obvious when someone’s opioid use has become an issue, especially early on. However, you should pay attention if you notice your loved one is:
- Missing work or school.
- Losing interest in activities they used to enjoy.
- Having trouble with concentration, memory or decision making.
- Taking opioids in a way not prescribed by their doctor (e.g. taking them more often than recommended, taking them “just in case”).
- Constantly losing their opioid medication, or going around to multiple doctors to get “backup” supplies.
Many times, it’s not any one specific thing that you can pinpoint, but a feeling that something is “off”. If you feel something is wrong, it’s important that you talk to your loved one as soon as possible.
Start the conversation
Substance use can be a very difficult topic to bring up and talk about, even with someone close to you. It can be especially hard as sometimes people themselves don’t realize their opioid use has become a problem, and they may get angry and defensive. Here are some tips on having the conversation:
- Show concern: Emphasize that you are worried about them because you care and want the best for them.
- Listen: You may not know the whole situation and they may have other reasons or circumstances you do not know about. Listen for these potential issues since they may guide you to the type of help your loved one needs.
- Be patient: This may be an issue that will be not resolved in one conversation. Be prepared to come back to the topic another day if strong emotions arise.
- Keep lines of communication open: You want to ensure that your loved one knows they can be honest with you and that you are available to help and support them.
- Don’t stigmatize: Use respectful language that avoids judgement. Be open minded and avoid letting opinions or assumptions change the way you think about someone.
It’s possible that the conversation may bring out strong emotions for everyone involved, and it’s okay if it doesn’t go as you expected. Remember, no matter how worried you are, you can’t force your loved one to change or get help if they aren’t ready.
Prepare to provide support
After having the initial discussion with your loved one, you may be looking for other ways you can continue to support them through their journey. Here are some tips:
- Provide reliable sources: Scare tactics are not effective and can close your line of communication. Support your loved one in making informed decisions by providing reliable information from trusted resources.
- Prepare for an emergency and carry a Naloxone kit: Learn how to recognize the signs of an opioid overdose and how to respond to an emergency. You might also consider taking CPR classes.
There are many resources and treatments available, including support groups and helplines offered through national and local organizations. Encourage your loved one to reach out and speak to their health care provider, who can guide them on their next steps.
Take care of yourself
Under the stress of taking care of someone recovering from addiction, it’s easy to neglect yourself. However, making sure your needs and well-being are taken care of should be your first priority. By caring for yourself first, you are in touch with your own feelings and can reach out more effectively to others and show them compassion and empathy. Here are some ways to continue to take care of yourself:
- Manage your expectations: If your loved one is struggling, know that there is no overnight solution to the problem. Afterall, opioid addiction is a chronic disease. There will be ups and downs, and many times it’s completely outside of your control.
- Set clear boundaries: Make sure they understand your boundaries and respect them. Have a conversation around what these boundaries are and explain to them the consequences of crossing those boundaries.
- Watch out for signs of stress and burnout: Taking care of others can be stressful, so be aware of ways to reduce your stress. If at any time you feel overwhelmed, don’t feel bad about asking for help for yourself.
- Understand acceptance is not approval: As hard as it may be to accept, sometimes the outcome is not what you were hoping for, so it’s important to learn to accept a situation when you have done all that was reasonably possible.
- Continue to do things you enjoy: Make time to support your own mental, physical, and social health, and keep routines that make you feel good. Don’t feel guilty about spending time on yourself.
Supporting someone with addiction can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Caring for yourself is one of the most important things you can do as a caregiver because it benefits both you and your loved one in the long run.
While caring for a loved one can be rewarding, it can also very stressful. Remember that you are not alone. There are many local and national organizations that offer caregiver support groups where you can talk to people who may be experiencing similar situations. If at any time you feel overwhelmed, don’t feel bad about needing to reach out for help. It’s not a failure on your part. If you feel depressed or anxious, talk to your doctor.
Your health care provider is a great resource if you’re struggling, or if your loved one is looking for more information. Our pharmacists are also always available to provide support you and direct you to appropriate services confidentially.
- Government of Canada. (2019). How to talk to a friend of family member about drugs. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/get-help/help-friend.html. Accessed April 23, 2020.
- How to tell if a loved one is abusing opioids. Mayo clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/prescription-drug-abuse/in-depth/how-to-tell-if-a-loved-one-is-abusing-opioids/art-20386038. Accessed April 25, 2020.
- Government of Canada. (2020). Stigma around substance use. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/problematic-prescription-drug-use/opioids/stigma.html. Accessed April 23, 2020.
- From Grief to Action. Coping Kit: Dealing with Addiction in your family. Accessed April 23, 2020.
- Cleveland Clinic. (2019). Caregiver Burnout. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9225-caregiver-burnout. Accessed April 24, 2020.