The first step is to recognize that substance abuse often comes about because the person is attempting to avoid or not deal with difficult or challenging feelings and emotions. The substance becomes a means of anesthetizing rather than addressing these feelings. Many addictions to both substances and non-substances (running, shopping, internet gaming) are ways to avoid difficult or problematic emotions.
Does your family member recognize the problem?
Thus a key first step is to know whether in fact what you see as a problem is also seen by the family member as a problem. More than just verbally agreeing it is a problem, in order for you to be effective with your family member, he or she must first recognize the seriousness of the problem and be willing to take responsibility for addressing the problem.
Often even when the family member acknowledges your perspective that the addiction is a problem, they either do not believe it is a problem or do not believe that they can solve the problem. This is not surprising, especially if the addiction has been with them for a number of years because for a long time their day-to-day life has been based on the belief that they cannot manage without, in addition to whatever addictive properties are associated with the substance itself.
Verbal commitment versus change in behaviour
It is also important to remember that a verbal commitment to change or improve is not a commitment. Change in behaviour and actions that involve treating the situation as a problem to be addressed are the only meaningful indicators of the family member’s commitment. These actions show that the family member is taking responsibility for the substance addiction by choosing to take the steps to get help with their problem.
You cannot solve your family member’s behaviour
The second and equally essential next step is to recognize that you cannot solve or even alter your family member’s behaviour – period. Once you are more invested, working harder or more attached to the result than your family member, you reduce the probability of positive improvements dramatically. All you can do is provide consistent support, which will also likely include resisting invitations from the family member to take over or rescue them in some way.
What are you prepared to do to provide support?
Relatedly, you must decide as clearly as possible what you are prepared to do and not prepared to do to provide this support. You must be prepared to stick to your position even in the face of behaviours or actions by the family member that you are unhappy, disappointed or even angry about. You will need to be firm and commitment so that you can withstand emotionally your family member’s attempts to change your opinion and so that you can handle any frustration, disappointment, discouragement and outrage you feel when the inevitable setbacks and recurrences of past behaviours reappear.
Seek your own support
For most people this requires a third step of seeking your own support and potentially the assistance of an experienced professional therapist or counsellor who can help you manage your own challenges and issues that may arise while you are attempting to support the family member. This is critical if you want to be able to provide the most effective support for your family member.