How Do I Talk to My Loved One About Their Drug Use?

drug use

Drug use changes people and alienates loved ones. It’s hard to confront a close friend or relative about a drug problem without triggering the person. Once addiction takes hold, the person is likely to be secretive and deny the problem. So how does one confront the issue?

If you would like to talk to an online therapist about your loved one’s drug use, reach out here.

How to Tell if Someone Uses Drugs

Drug addiction causes people to withdraw socially and engage in secretive behavior. As drugs take control of the user’s life, it tends to show in the user’s appearance, speech and physical mannerisms. For many people, the problem leads to credit debt, poverty, homelessness and/or crime.

  • Social withdrawal – When people fall into a drug habit, they tend to withdraw from people who aren’t involved in that lifestyle. They know that their friends and family won’t approve, so they try to hide the problem. Avoidance is the easiest way to hide something. They also lose interest in anything or anyone that doesn’t revolve around drugs.
  • Declining appearance – Most people who fall heavily into drug use lose their sense of grooming. Typically, the drug user won’t be aware of his/her disheveled appearance and the effect it has on others. The person may be too consumed with the effects of drugs to notice. This is often most telling if the person was once tidy and stylish. 
  • Secretive behavior – People are secretive about drug use for obvious reasons: it’s illegal and most people won’t approve. As drugs take over a person’s lifestyle, secrecy becomes that person’s modus operandi. It’s hard to be an open, honest person when life revolves around the clandestine acts of obtaining, using, and hiding drugs.
  • Financial trouble – Drug addiction drains finances. As of 2019, the cost for a gram of cocaine in the US is $120. Six grams is roughly the equivalent of a new smartphone or computer. For people who live in cities where the average rent is $1500 per month, drugs can (and often do) leave people destitute.
  • Physical symptoms – Drugs can ravage a user’s physical appearance. Drugs cause people to lose their appetites. Many users — more hungry for drugs than food — skip meals as the addiction grows stronger. Other physical signs of drug use include flush, jaundice, rashes, bloodshot eyes and dilated pupils.
  • Irritable, defensive attitude – As part of the secrecy and denial that accompanies drug addiction, users are typically defensive and snappish when confronted about the issue. Users of stimulants tend to be irritable and sometimes violent if pressed on the subject. Users of downers (fentanyl, heroin) are often calmer but equally evasive. 
  • Shakes, slurred speech – Drug users often show physical signs of the chemical effects that drugs have on the body. A user might shake, shiver or twitch involuntarily. Users also develop slurred speech patterns and talk in loud, incoherent, unfinished sentences. In many cases, the user is unaware of these irregularities. 

Gradually, as the user spirals further into drug abuse, the effects take their toll. Some users might have advantages that help them ward off certain downsides (ex. an affluent individual can afford the high cost of drugs) but most people bear the brunt on multiple fronts. Strong people become emaciated and withered; smart people become incoherent; attractive, stylish people get disheveled and ravaged. 

Things to Avoid Saying When You Talk to Your Loved One About Their Drug Use

When dealing with a friend or loved one who has an obvious drug problem, it’s best to practice verbal caution. Words that might seem like plain truths or simple concerns might come across as patronizing to a person with problems that others can’t comprehend. Examples of statements and frameworks that usually land poorly include:

  • “If you loved me…” – This makes the situation all about you rather than the person with the drug problem, who has already gone to great lengths to keep it from you. Instead, convey that you are reaching out to your loved one with concern and welcome that individual to open up about his/her concerns/issues/fears/weaknesses.
  • “You’re being selfish” – This implies that the person is doing drugs to hurt or spite you when, in fact, the addiction has nothing to do with you. The addiction is chemical and physical; not something they choose or govern with their moral conscience. Addictive behavior is often rooted in past trauma (abuse, grief, abandonment).
  • “Get clean now!” – Demands to the tune of “Straighten up now!” are patronizing and miscalibrated. A person who struggles with drug addiction cannot simply choose to go clean. Addiction occurs when drugs take chemical hold of the brain’s reward center and alter how feelings are transmitted through the body. People who stop cold turkey typically relapse because the cravings are too intense and painful.
  • “What were you doing?” – This sounds like an interrogation, as if you suspect them of being guilty of something. The person is already trying to keep something hidden, which already tugs at the individual’s guilty conscience (on some level). A statement like this would only make that person recoil and be more secretive. 
  • “I’m ashamed of you!” – This is the worst possible verbal approach in a touchy situation. You never want to impart shame on the subject or make any implications thereof. Instead, invite the person to open up about anything that’s on his/her mind. Make it clear that you will cast no judgment; that you offer yourself as an open set of ears.
  • “It’s because you’re weak” – Addiction is not a weakness; it’s a chemical dependency. The first consumption could have been deemed an act of weakness, but things are way beyond that stage once addiction takes hold and the body yearns for the drug despite the user’s better judgment. Any attempt at resistance is met with unbearable pain.
  • “You’re throwing your life away” – This misses the mark on multiple fronts. If the person’s life revolves around drugs, this won’t register. If the person thinks there’s nothing worth living for, this statement will seem irrelevant. If the person is highly sensitive and doesn’t understand tough love, this will seem like an insult.
  • “I don’t know what to do with you” – This statement sounds like you’re giving up on the person, who will likely think “if you don’t care then why ask or bother?” When you confront a loved one about a drug problem, you can’t expect it to be an easy fix. You must commit to the possibly difficult and lengthy process of getting that person to come around.

If you’ve never confronted a person about drugs before, gather advice from people who’ve successfully broached this topic with their loved ones. 

How to Encourage Them to Get Help When You Talk to a Loved One About Their Drug Use

Wherever you find yourself caring for a drug-addicted individual, always try to set a good example. Addiction causes lethargy, apathy and poor mental and physical health. A sober life involves daily goals, meditation, physical activity and good dieting. Always encourage these things when you’re around that person and lead by example.

  • Encourage healthy behavior – Share any knowledge you have about healthy eating and daily practices. Adopt good traits and explain them to the person in a friendly, encouraging way. Don’t make it seem as though you’re pushing these practices on the individual. Just demonstrate the behaviors in a way that seems easy and beneficial.
  • Suggest books and gurus – Recommend books, blogs, and videos by motivational speakers and wellness gurus that you find inspiring. If an influencer has motivated you in the areas of health and mental/physical/spiritual wellness, share that influencer’s social media channels (YouTube, TikTok, Instagram) with the person you hope to influence.
  • Be patient and realistic – Recovery doesn’t happen overnight. The person must come around and commit to change. People often relapse on their first attempt at sobriety. He/she will probably need to enter a rehab facility and undergo 2-3 days of detox, followed by 30-90 days of rehab. Before that, the person will need to be emotionally ready to make that commitment.
  • Educate yourself on addiction – Understand that addiction is a chemical dependency, not a moral problem. Addictive drugs trigger the brain’s reward center and send pleasure signals throughout the body. Once experienced, it’s difficult for the body to physically resist the drug. Through repetition, the body grows tolerant of the drug, which compels the user to take stronger and stronger doses.
  • Offer your personal support – Offer to be there for that person and support them in their efforts to get better. Communicate your understanding of the issue at hand. If you’ve never struggled with addiction yourself, read up on the topic and convey your understanding so that the person doesn’t feel alienated.
  • Recommend counseling – Encourage your loved one to see a counselor. Look up counselors in your area who specialize in drug addiction and set the individual up for an appointment. Addictive behavior is often spurred by deep-seated issues. This could be the beginning of the healing process.
  • Commit to the long-term process – If you want to help someone conquer drug addiction, you must commit to the goal. This could be a long-term process and you’ll have to prepare for resistance and setbacks.  
  • Don’t enable – Be supportive and accommodating, but make it clear that drug abuse and self-harm will not be tolerated in your presence or on your property. If that person agrees to stay with you, he/she will have to embrace a wellness plan. 

Sobriety is achievable for those who set their minds to it, though it can be an uphill battle. It takes time: usually three months of rehab and another 3-6 months afterward adjusting to life in the real world as a disciplined, productive, sober individual. 

What to Do if a Loved One Refuses Help for Their Drug Addiction When You Talk to Them

In some cases, the addicted individual will reject all good-natured help attempts and close off even further. He/she might even take pride in being a drug user. If, after numerous attempts with various “sensitive approaches,” the subject remains evasive, indignant, defensive or closed off, consider the following options:

  • Plan an intervention – Arrange a time and place where multiple parties close to the subject (siblings, parents, adult children, dear friends) can confront that person at once. This should be a place where the subject would feel comfortable; somewhere that he/she could be in the best possible mood and most willing to open up.
  • Dispense with paraphernalia – If the subject lives or stays with you, dispense with any needles, bongs, pipes, or other paraphernalia or drugs that you find in that person’s bags, drawers, or cabinets. Make it clear that you are there to help and you understand that it takes time, but that you won’t harbor continued drug abuse on your property or watch.
  • Set curfews, house rules – If the subject stays at your residence under your care, you set the rules. If you sense the subject is out for trouble, set limits on when he/she can go out and where that person can go. You can keep tabs on the person’s whereabouts with synchronized smartphones. 
  • Call treatment centers – Call the drug rehab treatment centers in your area and ask about their plans. Some offer inpatient and outpatient care, others only offer outpatient care, where the patient stays at home (possibly with you) and attends treatment sessions five days each week. 
  • Coordinate with other concerned parties – Whether or not you stage an intervention, discuss the matter with other relatives and/or mutual friends of the subject. Try to get others on the same page regarding health/wellness examples and sensitive but tough love.
  • Make an ultimatum – If the subject remains combative or uncooperative, make it clear that if they don’t abide by house rules, you’ll have no choice but to turn matters over to the state medical wards. If the subject is not related to you but seems to pose danger, you might need to cut ties and threaten him/her with eviction.
  • Hire an intervention specialist – Get someone who specializes in addiction treatment and have that person arrange an intervention. Some treatment centers offer this service.
  • Seek court-ordered treatment – Take the matter to court and have that person ordered into care. (Laws vary by jurisdiction.)

In some worst-case scenarios, the subject won’t submit peacefully to treatment. You might have to resort to drastic measures. The subject might be unwilling at the time but if the treatment succeeds, he/she will thank you in the end.

After You Talk About Their Drug Use, Get Help for Your Loved One

If someone you know struggles with drug addiction, do everything to encourage that person to get the help he/she needs. Support that person’s efforts to get better and do your best to set good examples. For the best possible results, encourage that person to enter a rehab treatment program. Call the local centers and ask about their programs and financing.

For more advice on how to talk to a loved one about their drug use, try speaking to an online therapist.

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