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Helping Someone with Drug or Alcohol Addiction

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If you have a loved one who is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, it can be difficult to watch them. It can also make you feel unsure as to how to help them. Here, we will talk about the signs of drug and alcohol use disorders, what you can expect when your loved one is dealing with a substance use disorder, how to handle the difficulties of trying to help them, and how having a loved one with a substance use disorder affects you.

The first thing that you need to know is that the difficulties involved with stopping the use of substances is complex. Using drugs or alcohol affects areas of the brain associated with self-control. As an individual keeps using drugs or alcohol, the way these areas of the brain function are changed, making it difficult to stop or otherwise control compulsive substance use.1 It is also important to know that it is unlikely that you alone can make them quit, however, there are ways you may be able to help support their motivation to change.1

Signs and Symptoms of Drug or Alcohol Addiction

There are signs and symptoms to look for that could indicate your loved one has a substance use disorder. Mental health professionals outline the criteria used to diagnose someone with a substance use disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). If your loved one meets at least 2 of the following criteria over the last 12 months, they may meet the criteria to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder:2

  • The person takes more of the substance than originally intended.
  • The person uses substances in high-risk situations, such as driving.
  • The person has increased interpersonal conflict over the use of substances.
  • The person neglects their responsibilities at home or work due to using substances.
  • The person gives up hobbies or other interests to use substances.
  • The person tries unsuccessfully to stop using or cut back on substances.
  • The person spends a lot of time and resources seeking the substance out and using it.
  • The person keeps taking the substance, even while knowing it causes harm to their physical or mental health.
  • The person has cravings to use the substance.
  • The person develops a tolerance to the substance, meaning that he or she needs more and more of the substance to keep feeling the desired effects.
  • The person experiences withdrawal symptoms when stopping or significantly reducing their use of the substance.

Other behavioral signs for at-risk substance use can include being secretive and lying about the use of substances or stealing money to obtain them. If the substance being misused is a prescription drug, the individual might have multiple prescriptions from different doctors, attempt to fill prescriptions before the refill date, or use the medication in a way other than how it was prescribed.3

Can Addiction Be Successfully Treated?

Addiction is a chronic disease that causes significant changes in the way the brain functions and the way a person behaves. It is characterized by the compulsive misuse of a substance, even though it brings about significant negative consequences. Addiction can be treated and managed successfully through evidence-based behavioral therapies and, in some cases, medication.4

Addiction develops after a person uses or misuses substances and then loses their ability to control their use, negatively affecting their home, work, school, and/or family life.4 This loss of control is often fueled by the way the body adapts to regular exposure to a substance: tolerance and physical dependence.

Tolerance is characterized by the need to take more of a substance (higher doses or with greater frequency) to keep feeling the desired effects.5 As an individual exposes their body to regular use of certain substances, the body adapts to its constant presence. When the substance is taken away (or the dose significantly reduced) withdrawal symptoms emerge as the body re-adjusts to not having the substance anymore. This can lead to strong cravings for the substance to relieve uncomfortable or distressing withdrawal symptoms and may result in an individual returning to substance use.

It is important to note that a person can develop tolerance and/or physical dependence when using a medication that is prescribed by a doctor, even when that substance is taken as directed. This is normal and does not necessarily mean a person is addicted.  When an individual has an addiction, they will exhibit a pattern of compulsive substance seeking and use despite experiencing negative consequences such as failing to meet their obligations at work, home, or school.5

Treatment for a substance use disorder focuses on management of the disorder, much like the process of managing other chronic diseases, including asthma or heart disease.6

Treatment usually consists of behavioral therapy and in some cases, medication. As a substance use disorder impacts many aspects of a person’s life, including employment and family relationships, a comprehensive, individualized treatment program is designed to address such areas as needed.6

How Can I Help Someone Struggling with Addiction?

Helping a person who is struggling with an addiction can be a difficult thing to do. Remember that you cannot control a person’s substance use, nor can you make them do anything. However, you can voice your concerns and offer your support, including offering to go to a treatment assessment with them, or encourage them to attend a self-help meeting, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.7 If your friend or family member expresses hesitation, fearing that treatment won’t work, assure them that treatment does indeed work and substance use disorders can be successfully managed. It is important to emphasize that treatment is necessary to repair damage to brain function that was caused by and promotes compulsive, repetitive substance use.8

If you want to help, and your loved one agrees to go to treatment, your next question may be where to find the help your loved one needs. You can talk to a doctor or treatment specialist or research online resources including treatment directories.

How to Talk to Someone With a Substance Use Disorder

When you talk with your loved one about their substance use, there are things that you can do, and not do, which can help the conversation be more productive and potentially result in a positive outcome.7, 8


  • Express your concerns and state facts, not opinions.
  • Be patient.
  • Offer help, including information about treatment, how it works, and how it can help.
  • Offer to go with them to the doctor or to an appointment.


  • Judge or criticize.
  • Neglect your own needs. Take care of yourself, regardless of the outcome.
  • Don’t yell or act angry.
  • Enable the person.

Effects of Addiction on Family and Friends

Addiction is a widespread concern in our society, with an estimated 50% of all Americans having a family member or close friend who has struggled with a substance use disorder.9 In fact, more than 1 in 10 children in the United States live with at least 1 adult who has a substance use disorder.10 The impact of substance use on family members can be profound. For example, children who grow up in a home with a caregiver who has substance use disorders are more likely to have social, emotional, academic, or behavioral issues.10 Other consequences in families where one member has a substance use disorder can include poor communication, increased risk of interpersonal violence, and overall impairment of emotional connections.10

When you live with someone who has a substance use disorder, you may engage in unhealthy behavior patterns such as codependency and enabling. Codependency is a pattern of behavior in which you seek to fix others and are unable to state your own needs and wants. If you are a person who displays codependent behaviors, you may value your loyalty to others over your own needs, even when doing so is harmful to you.11 Codependent behavior can result in enabling your loved one’s substance use, allowing them to carry on without facing consequences for using drugs and/or alcohol.12 An example of enabling behavior is calling your loved one’s boss and telling them your loved one is sick, when they are actually hung over.

Sometimes, when you are close with someone who has a substance use disorder, you can suffer from caregiver stress, feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities, and may suffer from depression or anxiety.13

How to Find Drug or Alcohol Addiction Help

You can start looking for help for a drug or alcohol addiction by speaking with a doctor, doing research on what help is available, and discussing these options with your friend or loved one. Factors that can play a role in your choice of a treatment program include the reputation of the facility and the type of care you are seeking.

Typically, when an individual enters treatment, it will occur in stages that include:14

  • Medical detoxification, where a person clears substances out of their body in a safe, supervised atmosphere. Detox alone is rarely sufficient in achieving long-term abstinence from a substance, but it is an important first step.
  • Treatment, or rehab, addresses a person’s motivation to change, helps a person identify triggers that lead to substance use, and teaches people ways to cope with stress or other triggers that do not involve turning to substances. Treatment typically includes counseling, group therapy, peer support programs and, in some cases, medication.
  • Aftercare provides continued support for a person’s recovery after formal treatment. This can include attending mutual help groups (e.g., Narcotics Anonymous), individual counseling or therapy, and continuing medications that were started during treatment.

Family therapy may also be a component in treatment or as part of aftercare for a person with a substance use disorder. During family therapy, family members learn what to do and what not to do to help best support their loved one during recovery. In addition, family therapy can offer you the support you need to cope with the situation with your loved one as they work on recovery from a substance use disorder.15

American Addiction Centers Can Help is a subsidiary of American Addiction Centers (AAC), a leading provider in outpatient programs such as drug and alcohol detox care, and inpatient rehab programs. If you are struggling with addiction and considering detox or rehab, call our team to help you find the treatment you need. You can reach us at 1-888-744-0069

American Addiction Centers accepts many insurance plans and can work with you on a manageable payment plan. Find out if your insurance coverage includes addiction rehab and treatment by verifying your insurance instantly or visiting the links below:

Help for Alcohol and Illicit Drug Abuse

Help for Prescription Drug Abuse

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Ryan Kelley is a nationally registered Emergency Medical Technician and the former managing editor of the Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS). During his time at JEMS, Ryan developed Mobile Integrated Healthcare in Action, a series of in-depth articles on Community Paramedicine programs across the country that go beyond transporting patients to emergency rooms and connects specific patients, such as repeat system users, the homeless and others with behavioral health issues and substance use disorders, to definitive long-term care and treatment. In his current capacity as Medical Editor for American Addiction Centers, Ryan works to provide accurate, authoritative information to those seeking help for substance abuse and behavioral health issues.
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