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Helping Your Loved One Struggling with Addiction

When an individual struggles with addiction, family members describe feeling fearful, confused and helpless. For loved ones, it is important to know the signs of substance abuse problems and how to help the person in need while taking care of themselves. The first evident symptoms that loved ones notice are the increased frequency of intoxication, problems with memory, increase or decrease in sleep or sleeping irregular hours, fatigue, problems at work or school, isolation, stealing, lying about the amount they are using, becoming defensive when questioned about their substance use, withdrawal symptoms (i.e.nausea, fatigue, shaking, sweating, agitation), poor appearance and poor self-care.

It is important for family members to educate themselves in order to understand the addict’s disease process. Some of the risk factors for addiction include family history of addiction, abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), traumatic experiences and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. In my experience working with individuals struggling with addiction at Hotel California by the Sea, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common diagnosis that our clients struggle with. Through evidence based therapy approaches such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), we are able to help our clients target the underlying reasons of their addiction which breaks their cycle of depending on alcohol and drugs to cope with their symptoms.

When people begin using drugs and alcohol, the way their brain functions starts changing. Alcohol and other drugs such as cocaine, stimulants, and heroin increase dopamine output. The drugs or alcohol that once “stimulated” dopamine production or sensation are now “required” to produce pleasure and happiness because the brain can’t do it on its own any more. Most addicts describe using to feel normal or using to be able to function in daily tasks. Over time, drugs replace the normal flow of dopamine and without them, the addict loses motivation, feels sad or depressed, and is unable to function normally, both physically and mentally. Dopamine not only contributes to the experience of pleasure, but also plays a role in learning and memory. An addict who uses to cope with mental health symptoms or underlying trauma learns that using drugs is a coping skills to manage these symptoms.

Loved ones of addicts may find themselves in codependent relationship patterns. Codependency in addiction is the desire to help your loved one but enabling their addiction at the same time. Family members may find themselves protecting and making excuses for the addict’s behavior by sacrificing their own emotional needs and wellbeing. It is important for family members to seek help through support groups and Al-anon in addition to individual therapy to protect their own wellbeing.

It is important for family members to have resources for treatment centers and providers when the addict is internally motivated to seek treatment. Even when families approach the addict with a compassionate, nonjudgmental attitude, these attempts may fail because the addict’s brain’s need for chemical gratification can overpower their sense of reason. Through a formally structured intervention, a family can be assisted to break through the resistance that blocks the way to treatment.

Ipek Aykol, 

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist