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Can you help a drug addict get clean? Yes. Yes. For goodness sake, yes

If I must read that addicts should be left to find their own way to treatment or hit rock bottom before they should ask for help one more time, I’ll … sit down and write about it.

Before you read on, note that in this article an addict is someone who has the condition of addiction — the compulsivity, challenges, struggles, but it is not a label for life. A ‘Junkie’ here is the overt and ugly manifestation of addiction and is used only to strongly differentiate it between the Real Person it masks, and who our attention and services need to be primarily directed.

Is it easy to help an addict into recovery? No, that I’ll concede. But there are many things that family, friends, and others can do to be relevant and effective — that’s if help is needed and, in most cases, it is. Sometimes a life will depend on your actions.

I’ve supported dozens of people over more than three decades to find their way home — or to nudge them in that direction. Admittedly ‘home’ has often been a pretty shitty place for addicts, so let me spell out ‘home’ in the way I use it. Home is a place of safety, warmth, acceptance, learning, rest, and peace. It can be physical, such as a house or a rehab facility, and/or metaphysical such as a sense of self-acceptance and peace.

So, what can you do?

Get educated. But be discerning about what you hear and read

John was the first person I confronted about his addiction issues; his drug was marijuana. I thought it was not possible to be addicted to marijuana way back then, but there was a disturbing correlation between his drug use and his compulsive and violent behaviours. So, I booked a meeting with the addiction services at my local hospital to understand the effects of marijuana, to get advice on how to confront him, and to find out about treatment services. I went to an Al Anon meeting. These were the only services on offer, and they were good enough. I was able to help him get into rehab and I learned how to respond to his behaviour.

Later I went on to study how to assess someone with substance abuse disorders, attended various 12 Step meetings and events, and read prolifically on addiction. The act of educating yourself can help you gain some control in the crazy, chaotic world of addicts. You can better manage and support yourself and be more relevant in the lives of the addicts you love.

Every situation requires different knowledge and information, and in the google era, there is no shortage of material to read and watch. But be discerning and use your intuition. I received some excellent advice, but some has been highly dubious and some downright dangerous.

Get perspective — drugs aren’t necessarily a problem

When safe injecting rooms were introduced in various cities throughout the world, addicts were given access to free and pure heroin. Their lives changed beyond all expectations. People who had been forced by their addiction to denigrate themselves to pay for — and spend most of their days looking for — high-risk street drugs, could turn up to an injecting room, get their daily hit from a caring professional and then get on and live ordinary lives. The stage was set for tapering off the drug and leaving it behind. The drama went out of the drug.

Most people use or dabble in drugs and alcohol — and in most cases, drugs aren’t really a problem. So, Saying No to Drugs is not a useful message. The problems with drugs are to do with quantity, quality, impact and the reason for using. Better messages are around:

  • Education — what do you know about this drug?

  • Harm reduction — if you are going to use, limit damage

  • Consequences — if it gets out of control, what are you going to do?

  • And if you think drugs are going to solve your problems, well, lol. Think again.

What you can do is support drug reform that decriminalises drug use, promotes harm reduction and education, and invests in a range of treatment options. And don’t panic if your loved one is dabbling. Save your panic for when they are really in strife (see Emoji 3 below).

Drugs improve the quality of life, for example, for those with a medical condition, the social drinker, and the recreational drug user.

Drugs become problematic due to overuse or bad experiences. Health, financial, marital, work and other issues arise. A heavy drinker/user can recognise and change their behaviour.

Drugs have taken over and become more important than anything else — health, family, work — and the person may not be able to stop without help — that is, they’re addicted.

Understand who you’re dealing with

When I recognised that Alia, a friend I’d not seen for a while, was losing or had lost control of alcohol — it had begun to define her, was wreaking havoc in her relationship and threatening her reputation — my reaction was one of deep sadness. I found a time and place and a deadly serious tone and looked her in the eye. I told her that she was one of my favourite people, that she inspired me, that I admired her ease in the way she navigated in the world, her creativity, her bravery and her intellect. But last night she was drunkenly flirting, slurring her words, shit-stirring and people were uncomfortable with her behaviour. And it upset me. ‘I think you have a problem with alcohol’ I said, ‘and you should see an expert — here are some options.’

If you can understand that your addict is not a crazy person, but only a drug-derived manifestation of one, then half your battle is done. Your job is to find and talk to the real person — not the nasty drunk, the moronic pothead or otherwise crazed junkie. Learn to discern between The Real Person and the (note please, capital J) Junkie. You can’t help a Junkie because they’re not real. They are a façade or construct to protect the drug and, oddly, to protect The Real Person. The Real Person is your child, friend, colleague, client or yourself. These people are not using to be happy or social, they are using to self-medicate, numb feelings or to cope with things that do not (yet) have other means to deal with. Your job is to find them, nudge them out, help them and love them. If you attack, punish or hurt the Junkie you will only strengthen it.

You may be asking, what if the Real Person is an asshole? I’ve never found a truly awful Real Person behind a Junkie. I have found sad and troubled people with underlying ailments, most of which are fixable if they’re prepared to face them. I’ve also found many talented, kind, and funny people who, through dealing with their drug struggles, often become better for it.

Get your own act together

If you are going to help an addict you need stamina. It is a long haul, and often very lonely. People will not understand your pain and desperation, and you will be flummoxed by conflicting advice. You have to toughen up by:

  • Neutralising your fear about drugs — study the science and ignore the dramatic hype

  • Knowing that most drug users don’t become addicts and if they are, that many will get help on their own.

  • Getting a mentor — a drug counsellor, a recovered addict, a support group, someone who’s been where you are now

  • Believing in the Real Person and not reacting to the Junkie

  • Understanding that you may be grieving for the loss of someone to addiction so be very gentle on yourself

  • Making this about your addict — not about yourself. This is not personal; they are not trying to hurt you. They are hurting and may need your help.

Get centred. Think of a blue doughnut. In the middle is your best self. Kind, calm, smart, peaceful, unafraid and unaffected, and not alone but connected by your intuition to the power of [love, God, the universe, the Tao … fill in the blank]. The blue doughnut is your ego-self — your fears, worries, rage, embarrassment and material concerns. It’s not a good place to be.

Try to stay in, or return to, the centre of your blue doughnut

Have a goal in sight

When Paula’s husband was sacked from his job, he stopped hiding his meth addiction and started using at home, spent their savings on drugs, and blamed Paula for everything. The advice she received was ‘take your child and run’ — but she decided not to. She calmed herself down, got educated, teamed up with family members and worked on a game plan. She started with a vision of her family as intact and her husband healthy. She ignored the Junkie and started appealing to the Real Person that she’d married. She focused initially on one micro-goal, asking for nothing more than for him to see a doctor.

Yes, it’s OK to have a vision for another person. Envision how you want your life to be and that of your addict and then set some goals. Those familiar with my son’s story of severe meth addiction in Dancing on Razor's Edge will know that my initial goal was to get him a drug assessment (achieved), then get to rehab (semi-successful), then my aim was simply to accept that he would always be an addict and that he might die from his addiction (thank God, I failed at that!) and then it was to save his life — which happily, he is doing all by himself now.

Be relevant

Once you’ve got your big girl’s blouse on and your big boy’s backpack, you are ready to be relevant.

One of the staunchest mothers I’ve ever met, Leanne, had been dealing with her daughter’s severe poly-addiction for more than 20 years. She was highly self-educated, realistic, tired yet still buoyant. She had never given up on her daughter who had sailed close to death several times. Leanne knew the Real Person and she never lost faith that time, new science, divine intervention or involuntary treatment legislation would realize her vision of a healthy daughter.

Unfortunately, there are limited provisions in law or practice for involuntary treatment for severe addicts meaning that families must step in, or the person dies (read more here).

Regardless, there are many things you can do to help an addict:

1. Stop blaming, judging, scolding, hurting, threatening — as best you can. Addicts are in a very dark place where they’re already piling on the self-blame, shame and guilt. They don’t need yours and it will stop them emerging.

2. Keep a candle burning and make soup. If your addict is going to crawl out of their Junkie hellhole, make sure it is safe to do so and they are welcomed home with love. Listen to Tom Walker’s song — Leave a Light On.

3. Listen for, and to, your addict — the Real Person is there, sometimes faintly or maybe obviously, depending on the severity of their addiction. You have to be available to hear them. They will not ask for much, they may want to be held, to know you are there, they may ask for help, they make ask you not to help. Believe, trust and respect these quiet voices. Remind them of who and what they really are — don’t let them diminish themselves. Keep them close if you can, or at least stay connected.

4. Don’t listen to the Junkie — they’ll only do your head in. They will manipulate, guilt-trip and lie to you to get or get to their drugs. Don’t react but just push them away gently if you can, harshly if you must. Protect yourself, your property and others from your Junkie. Tell them that you only want to talk to the Real Person.

5. Only invest your time and money in supporting your addict to stop using and get their life together. Think through the consequences of any investment of resources very carefully. Are you helping the Junkie or the Real Person? The Junkie’s needs are endless, the worst will bleed you dry with zero gratitude. The best may still use you to stay connected to their drug by making you complicit in their use. The ‘functional’ addict is a good example of the latter. This Junkie will draw you into their world of denying that there is any life-threatening problem that you need to concern yourself with. These are often the ones that are so good at avoiding treatment that they slip away quietly. The Real Person will want to get well and thank you for your help.

6. Use consistent and persistent messaging to nudge. Turn it into a song if it helps. No, I won’t give your money, give in to your demands, accept your view that you’re a loser, clean up after you, lend you my car …. [Fill in your own boundaries]. But I will help you fill in that form for rehab, take you to the doctor, hold on to your meds if it helps etc.

7. If the situation is dire and you are able to, force a split between the addict and their drug. Prison can do this, but imprisonment sends a message to addicts and to the rest of us that addicts are bad and need to be punished. They are not and they don’t. It’s a sad indictment as a society that we can’t use health facilities to contain severe addicts. Containment does not guarantee that the person will not return to drugs on release — it is simply to get them detoxed, nourished and in a position to at least make choices.

The end game for addicts is to reach maturity. Addiction can be seen as a maturational crisis where someone has failed to become fully independent or to become interdependent. Your role is to help someone who is essentially functioning as a child to deal with problems in a healthier way than by using drugs, take on the responsibilities of adulthood and connect successfully with others.

There are many roads to home — some are longer and windier than others.

In Buddhism, we’re told to face the right direction then just keep walking. Addicts often reach a decision point where they want out of the chaos and to become ‘normal’, to gain or regain their lives and dreams, or reconnect with their families. Your job may be to just stand-by and wait for them to work it out, or you may have to wade in and do a full-on rescue mission. You do not have to wait until someone hits ‘rock bottom’ before you help them. Not at all. Rock bottom is a construct — you can’t find it on a map. If you wait for someone to lose it all, as hitting rock bottom implies, you may lose them too.

People do overcome addiction; they do work it out. I’ve known addicts who’ve gone to rehab, got themselves together and barely looked back. Others got stuck in AA — but they’re doing OK, and some went to rehab multiple times before they found the peace or awareness that they needed. Others got out by working with professionals to deal with underlying mental illness, trauma or identity crises. Others work it out themselves — they turn to sports or religion, they reconnect to their culture and communities or go bush for a while, or find meditation. Some change addictions to avoid going home, some learn to manage their addictions better. There are many levels of ‘awakeness.’

To help someone home is a wonderful thing. Maybe it doesn’t work the first time or the hundredth, but I am certain that every little nudge, every act of love has an effect.

Mandy Whyte is a family mentor and author of Dancing on a Razor’s Edge a story of her son’s battle with methamphetamine addiction.


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