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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.