Occasionally in our relationships we find ourselves asking if our loved ones are “using too much.” 

Oftentimes we get caught up in judging certain substances: those that are illegal, those deemed dangerous, those that make a person go from being one familiar way to being entirely different. But of course, we also totally accept other drugs, like caffeine, as part of the daily ritual.

We’re all drawn to activities that make us feel good, and many of us do these things in excess. It can be an absolute relief to find something that takes the edge off.

Sometimes it can be hard to determine whether or not we are overreacting to a friend’s ‘usage’; maybe it’s just the videos from D.A.R.E. making us think that all drugs are bad, or the news suggesting we all have problematic relationships to food or video games.

The School of Life frames addiction this way: “An addiction shouldn’t be narrowly defined in terms of a particular substance: it’s something we feel a powerful need for because some aspect of the rest of our lives is pretty challenging. We should therefore stop dwelling on the addictive thing itself, and focus instead on the sadness or anxiety that is fueling our dependence on it.

When trying to help someone with substance use issues (or process addiction, for that matter), there are three main steps to take:

  1. Understand why they use substances, and why it’s so hard for them to stop.
  2. Express your own needs in the relationship, and the pain another’s substance use causes you.
  3. Lead with love, and help them see they don’t have to carry their emotional burdens on their own.

The bottom line is that it’s not our place and not helpful to judge another’s substance use. Shame, after all, is a root of addictive behavior.

The bigger question we need to ask is: “What in this person’s life leads them to find relief in their addiction?” And to follow up: “How can we help ease the pain, without creating pain in ourselves?”

Where does substance use start?

The number one thing to remember regarding substance use is that substance use comes from pain within the individual. Everyone tries to ease internal pain, whether they are working, exercising, or drinking smoothies excessively, taking heroin, getting drunk, or spending 15 hours straight playing the Sims.

People end up with addictions to substances and processes for one reason — because they’re trying to feel better.

No one is a bad person for having an addiction, because to be a bad person for having an addiction would mean that they’re bad for wanting to feel better. Is that not what every person in this world wants?

Substance use comes partly from the inability to be present with oneself, and the inability to experience one’s own challenging feelings. This makes sense, in part because we live in a world that does not support us through the pain it causes.

Being alive in this world is painful and difficult most of the time, whether you are in the middle of the Amazon jungle or in the middle of New York. It’s the human condition, and unfortunately, addictions come with it.

We live in a world that does not allow time for an individual to really sit with themselves and sit with their feelings. We ask people to go to work 40 hours a week when they are struggling inside, from traumas that have been handed to them by other people. For many, the only way to function is to force the difficult thoughts out of their heads.

When someone ‘uses’ to cope, they are escaping a part of themselves – whether a memory, trauma, the day’s difficulty, or their own self-loathing. They may not be able to feel the love that you feel for them, for themselves. Is the lack of self-love justified? Probably not, and it was probably taught.

We often look at substance abuse as being a genetic issue, but don’t really consider that your genetics correlate to the childhood trauma associated with addiction, and to behaviors learned through mimicking adults’ coping mechanisms.

Again, substance use stems from pain, and a misguided impulse to regulate emotions. Substance use is not merely the result of someone choosing to do drugs. Nobody casually does heroin, nobody really wants to need to drink to have fun, nobody wants to rely on their vices. As motivational coach Anthony Robbins said “people will do more to avoid pain than they will do gain pleasure.”

How substance use can impact those around it

We live in a world of duality. What goes up, must come down; and all clichés aside, we live in a world where some peoples’ down is so unbearable, that they turn to unhelpful habits. These habits can alienate them from (or cause them to mistreat) other people. 

Those deep within addictions can become completely egotistical and narcissistic. This can be very scary to watch as someone stops caring how their actions affect those around them. How does addiction cause this change in how someone treats others?

A person dealing with addiction is a person who on some level already feels like a burden. This shame causes a process of going against oneself and self-isolating. When the shame becomes unbearable, people may snap in the other direction.

As an addict disconnects from others in shame, the isolation may begin to feel safe and comfortable, resulting in narcissism and egotism. Everything becomes about keeping bad feelings out. Substance use and addiction harm relationships by the mechanism of this self-centered protective drive.

You are entitled to voice your concerns as they relate to how you’re impacted by your loved one’s substance use. This can help prevent resentment, and motivate the other person to change. However, remember that what you bring up has to revolve around how YOU feel, not around how you interpret THEIR situation.

How to help a friend with substance use issues

When you want to help a friend with their substance use, finding the right words to say and the right time to say them proves difficult. While traditional ‘interventions’ with loved ones can prove effective, they only go so far as the person feels shamed out of their particular habit.

Although they may abandon the substance, they may continue to struggle if the pain within them is not healed. This leaves the door open to relapse, as they continue to seek other ways to mask the pain.

Instead of staging an intervention, demonstrate how important this person is to you, and how their use impacts you in addition to themselves. Only love can overcome the type of pain that leads to addiction. Here are effective ways to express that love.

Express how you’re impacted

You are doing your loved one a disservice if you enable their addiction and resent them for it later. It is not helping either of you if they ask you to buy them another drink, then you resent them for becoming too drunk.

To keep the relationship healthy, only help within the scope of your comfort, remaining honest when you are not okay with “helping” in the way they request. By being authentic, you create space for them to trust you, and you show them that while your love is unconditional, your acceptance of their behavior is not.

Speak for yourself

When you find yourself worrying about a loved one’s substance use, it is imperative that you first accept that your concerns are your concerns. Leading with “I statements” allows you to share your concerns without putting blame on the other.

For example, state “I felt sad seeing you blacked out all weekend. It would have been nice to go out together,” or “I feel afraid for your health when I see you hungover at work,” or “I feel worried that I haven’t seen you in a few weeks.” This way, you allow your empathy and love to wash over the other person, while owning your own experience.

It’s ok to be honest that you have selfish concerns. The word “selfish” has been demonized in our society, but it is important to remember that you have to have some focus on “the self” in “self-ish.” Otherwise, how can you be true to yourself?

Tell your friend or family member that you want them to get better because it would make you feel better. Because you selfishly feel pain when they aren’t doing well. This approach creates more trust between you, shows that you really love them, and prevents resentment from growing in your relationship.

Avoid creating more shame

Addiction comes with a deeply-ingrained current of shame. People are not dumb, and they understand when their habits are hurting them, even if they appear in denial.

They understand that the hangover does not feel good and the come down feels terrible. But for those suffering, the come UP feels better than what they are feeling inside themselves — so much better, that the prospective comedown and rebound time feels worth it in the moment.

One big way people often shame addicts is by dismissing their pain. It can be so easy to say “Well I went through pain without becoming addicted; therefore they should not suffer.” But there is no way to compare pain, as we all experience even the same things differently. Remember the differences between your coping mechanisms and theirs are due simply to the fact that you are different.

Empower them to change, rather than asking them to

With addiction, like other struggles, healing falls back on the individual. Only the individual can decide that they want to change.

Interventions and sharing concerns only go as far as the person is willing to accept help. Ultimately, you must maintain full awareness that you are asking them to change, because you want to feel different in relation to them.

If you feel the need to intervene, you must come from a place of genuine concern and support, rather than judgement or disapproval. Understand that you might need to say “I do not understand what you are going through, but it seems like you are hurting” or “I feel afraid of the way you have been coping lately, how can I help you?”

If they seem open to it, you may refer them to any of the self-help resources below:

Start Your Recovery

SAMHSA Treatment Locator

SAMHSA National Hotline

National Problem Gambling Helpline

Accept that they may not accept your help

In addition to all the ways you can actively help, sometimes helping means stepping back. You must be able to understand that some people in need will reject your help. And if you can’t continue tolerating their behavior, you have to respect your own boundaries.

Ultimately you can only be responsible for your own feelings, and there are times when it is in your best interest to separate entirely from a person that is going through an addiction. This is because if you stay close with them, trying to change them, you are not honoring their reality and their choices.

We cannot change other people; we can only help them change themselves in the ways that they are comfortable with. An Olympic athlete can only become that if they deeply, intrinsically want it. The same goes for those healing from substance use. We cannot push an individual into a healing that they are not ready for – we can only motivate them with our support and love.

The importance of connection

Human beings need connection above all else. If you are going to help another person, you must lead in love for them and in turn, in love for yourself.

Each person has grown up with a certain set of thoughts in their head, a certain set of feelings that you will never know beyond a common word of “pain.” Have love for the part of yourself that understands that you will never understand another person’s reality in its entirety.

When trying to help a friend who struggles with substance use, hold onto the knowledge that connection is a deep human need. If a person is willing to disconnect from everyone around them, then they must also have the belief that other people do not need them. That other people cannot help them.

As those with substance issues often feel shameful and isolated, groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and the like assist those in recovery. They do this by providing a community of accepting people who understand a shared pain. 

For example, you can have one person experiencing cocaine addiction, coming from a strict religious family that believes that all drugs are bad. This person will never feel empathetic inclusion from their family; this may keep them stuck in a cycle of addiction, which was born from the trauma of growing up in a strict household. To help lift people out of cycles like these, we must connect them to others who share the same struggle. This can provide the external understanding and acceptance needed to accept themselves, even if you can’t personally provide it.

Substance use is simply a different way of dealing with one’s self. In this world of dualities, pain and fear versus love and acceptance, finding the space to lead with love is critical.

By loving the fact that we cannot change another person, we create space for them to possibly see the changes they want to make in themselves. Additionally, by treating substance use as a medical condition we help them heal and do not punish them for the consequences of their actions.

In parting, you’re awesome for wanting to help someone you know! Keep in mind that you can take steps to maintain your own wellbeing while helping someone else.

And before you offer help, refresh yourself on best practices for lending a hand.

Remember, it is not your responsibility to heal anyone around you. The number one person to care for when engaging with a person experiencing substance use, is yourself.