Do you love someone with addiction? Here are five things you can do (and they might not be what you think)

Maine’s opioid crisis is all over the news. We don’t go a day without hearing about drug busts, arrests, overdoses, and lack of treatment options. It’s a disaster unfolding in front of our eyes, and we all know it.

What is missing from the news, though, are the thousands of Mainers who suffer from problems with alcohol, cannabis, or other drugs. Alcohol is the most frequent substance for which Mainers seek treatment. The rates of death from chronic diseases related to substance use such as stroke, cardiovascular disease and alcohol related liver diseases range from 6.1 per 100,000 (cirrhosis and liver disease) to 158 per 100,000 (stroke). And tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in Maine.

These other addictions have taken a backseat to our opioid problem, but they are every bit as important for the people whose lives are affected by them.

No matter what the drug of choice, loving someone with severe substance use disorder (the preferred medical term for addiction) can be difficult and frustrating. It can also be a very lonely experience. The person you love may have inappropriate and embarrassing behaviors, may be deceitful, and may simply disappear from your life for weeks or months on end. Unpredictability, nastiness, and betrayal may seem like the only games your loved one knows. You may feel ashamed and hide this from your friends and neighbors.

We are learning more and more every day through research about how recovery “works” and what supports a life in recovery, and the good news is that recovery from any addiction is possible. But before that happens, here are five things you can do for your own sanity, and you just might help your loved one move a little closer to getting well, too.

  1. Keep your heart open. No matter how difficult it is, keeping an open heart to the people you love is critical. This doesn’t mean aiding and abetting their substance use; clear boundaries are important. It means being ready to help when it’s time.
  2. Watch your mouth. Language can hurt, and research shows that derogatory language can discourage people from seeking help. Instead of calling your loved one an addict or junkie or alcoholic or stoner, what about saying he or she has substance use disorder? That’s the accurate medical term, and it takes away the stigma that people with substance use disorder often feel. The Office of National Drug Control Policy recently released guidelines for Changing the Language of Addiction that can help guide our language choices.
  3. Speak up. Our decision makers need to hear the voices of people affected by substance use disorder, including family members and friends. In fact, people who are “affected others” can be the most effective when they tell their stories and ask for help and policy changes. We need so many changes to Maine’s policies around substance use! Your voice can make a difference. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence has some great resources and locally, Maine has five chapters of Young People in Recovery who are changing the conversation about addiction in their communities.
  4. Get informed. If you don’t understand much about addiction and recovery, there’s help. The best place to start is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. There’s also good information at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  5. Carry naloxone. If your loved one has an opioid use disorder, it is critical that you have naloxone close at hand – in your home, in your car, in your purse, in your backpack. Naloxone needs to be where a person might overdose. Maine has a law that allows doctors to prescribe naloxone to “third parties” like you, who only want to prevent your loved one from dying from an overdose. Talk to your doctor about a prescription for naloxone now!

We are facing dark times now in Maine when it comes to addiction. We don’t have many resources devoted to the problem, but that won’t always be the case. There is always hope that things will get better.

Alison Webb

About Alison Webb

Alison Webb is a public health consultant with over 20 years experience in community outreach, grassroots organizing, implementing and evaluating evidence-based programs, and advocating for healthy policies at the Maine State Legislature. Alison is especially interested in what science tells us about promoting health and wellness and how we can apply that to live well in Maine. The blog describes recent public health research and give readers insights into how to use that knowledge to lead healthy lives.