Are you supporting someone that is using alcohol and other drugs?

Not everyone who uses drugs will experience problems, but some people do. Unfortunately, there is a lot of stigma about drug use, and both people who use drugs and those around them may keep their situation hidden - leaving them feeling lonely. Here are some tips from people who have been there before:

Supporting someone? Are you supporting someone using drugs or alcohol? Be kind to yourself and remember. This situation is not your fault. It's okay to be finding things hard. You are not responsible for making everything okay. It's okay to show them you're human too. Be a parent more than a friend if you are supporting a child. You need support too. Find people and services who can care for you and listen to what you're experiencing.

Are you noticing changes?

Talking with someone is the best way to explore what is going on. It might just be a worried feeling, or you may have noticed something specific.

Here are some changes people noticed that prompted them to talk with someone else about their drug use:

  • Their appearance (e.g. how they dress, their facial expressions)
  • Appetite, eating habits and weight
  • Sleeping patterns
  • How they speak, move, and act
  • Energy, attention, mood, and motivation levels
  • Longer term changes, such as their attitude, personality, who they spend time with, what they spend time doing, and increased financial stress.

Is their use likely to cause problems?

Not all drug use causes problems, but some does.

You could explore what the person you are supporting is likely to experience. This could include thinking about what they use, how much they use and how often.

Here is one way to explore the situation. Which of the following relate to your situation?

They could be curious or feel pressured to try a drug. This might be the only time they use it.

You may want to explore the situation with them and learn more about what they might experience so they make an informed decision. This could help them avoid having unexpected problems, either because they weren't prepared or took something they didn't expect. See First time using for more information.

At this level, drug use can often become a part of the person’s social life. They may only use in certain situations, like having a cigarette while at a party, smoking cannabis with friends on the weekends or using MDMA when out clubbing or at a festival.

You may want to explore the situation with them, so they act in ways that can help prevent problems from developing. See Drug safety for more information.

The person will most likely have developed tolerance - where more of the drug needs to be taken to experience the same effect. This pattern of drug use is more likely to impact how they keep up with daily life. Their friends and family are likely to have seen their drug use and how it affects them.

You may want to explore the situation with them, and let them know if you have noticed things that are worrying you. You may also want to consider getting support for yourself. See Taking care of yourself for more information.

Usually, the person has a high physical tolerance to the drug and will most likely experience withdrawal if they stop using. Other parts of their life are usually strongly affected, and they may find that problems are mounting up with their physical health, mental health, daily responsibilities, and relationships. Addiction practitioners help people in this stage, by exploring the situation and helping them to make changes. Some of the exploration includes checking if the person is:

  • having cravings for the drug
  • spending a lot of their time using and getting drugs
  • giving up activities that they used to enjoy
  • trying to cut down or quit and not being able to
  • using in ways that are risky or dangerous (overdosing, using multiple drugs at the same time).

You may want to get support for yourself, and then explore the situation with them. There may be actions they can take themselves, see Wanting to make changes for more information. And, they might benefit from professional support, see Support options or call the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797 or text them at 8681 for free.

Are you hiding the situation?

Unfortunately, drug use has a lot of stigma, and sometimes people hide their situation from others. Do you notice yourself doing these things?

  • Feeling that you need to cover for them if they are not able to meet their responsibilities. This often comes from a good place and helps to not 'rock the boat' but doesn't help the person to address the consequences of their actions.
  • Changing the story when you describe what is going on, not tell the whole truth or say something completely different. This can sometimes prevent you from seeing the full situation, and that can make people feel stuck.

You may want to consider whether you're hiding the situation or not, and if so, whether you would like to change that or not.

How to have a conversation

Here are some tips to get you started if you're ready to have a conversation with someone about their drug use.

Be clear on what you want to talk about. This might include things you have noticed.

Agree on a time that you can talk without distractions or interruptions.

Create an environment where they feel cared for and supported.

These conversations can make you feel a wide range of emotions. Be prepared to stay calm as it can influence how you talk to them.

When having the conversation, it can be helpful to share your concerns, show you care and figure out next steps together.

Here’s one approach:

  • Share what you have noticed. Be neutral, share the facts, no need for it to be a lecture.
  • Offer genuine and realistic support. It’s OK if you can’t do everything.
  • Agree together on what’s OK. It’s easier when you are both on the same page.
  • It can be helpful to agree on what they can do moving forward and how you might be able to support them – for example, activities you do together that don’t involve alcohol and other drugs, ways they could reduce their use or how you could help them take a break.
  • Explore other forms of support (workplace options, community groups, addiction services, helplines). For more information on what’s available, see Support options.

For help planning this conversation, check out the NZ Drug Foundation’s conversation planner. It was designed with young people in mind, but it’s just as handy for older people.

An open and caring conversation provides an opportunity for you both to explore and reflect honestly on the situation. Here are some questions to explore together:

  • What is the situation and how do each of you feel about it?
  • Have they used alone?
  • Was there a time where their drug use affected them in the workplace or at home?
  • Has someone close to them said they are worried about their drug use?
  • Have they found it difficult to remember what happened while using alcohol and other drugs?
  • Have they used alcohol or other drugs to relax, cope, feel better or fit in?
  • Have they done something while using that could have been in trouble with the law?

A clinical psychologist talks about having the conversation:

“What I found is, when we bring it up with our mates, it’s not as bad as they thought it was going to be. It gets us to a place where we can actually talk about it.”

Drug use does not always cause problems. Everyone has different opinions of drugs, and you may not agree with what they are doing. If someone senses you will judge them for their drug use, they may not want to open up and talk honestly about what’s going on.

Here are some ideas on how to be supportive:

  • Put yourself in their shoes and try to think about the underlying reasons or motivations behind their use.
  • Try to avoid saying things like “drugs are bad for you”. Instead, try starting statements with “I feel” – “I feel like your drug use has been making it hard for you to go to work lately” or “I feel like your drinking is getting in the way of you spending time with the kids”.
  • Avoid scare tactics – the research shows they don’t work.

Showing someone that you are there for them can create opportunities for further support. For example, after your talk with them you could:

  • Schedule regular catch-up times.
  • Call or message to see how they are going.
  • Plan a relaxing activity together, like going for a walk or creating something.

Encourage them to explore support options. It may be best to find support that is local, as it is easier to access. For more information on the professional help available, see Support options. To find local services, visit Health Point. 

Photo by Erika Giraud on Unsplash

How to help them make changes

A helpful first step might be to explore the situation with them, and figure out together the best option for them and how you can help.

You could also encourage them to call the AlcoholDrug Helpline (0800 787 797) or text them at 8681 for confidential, non-judgemental expert advice. It’s free and open 24/7. For more information on the professional help available for them, see Support options. To find out what services are in your area, visit Health Point. They can also talk to their GP or health provider and you might want to offer to go with them if it makes them feel more comfortable.

It may take some time to figure out a way forward together. Be patient and let them know you are there to support them as much as you are able.

Some other things you can consider doing:

If someone has been using a drug regularly, stopping or cutting down can lead to withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal can be a very unpleasant experience for the person and, depending on the drug, could be life threatening.

For information on how to tell if they are withdrawing and when they need to see a doctor for support, see Managing withdrawal.

Using drugs regularly and over long periods of time can change how much, how often and what a person eats. Because of this, they may not be getting the nutrition they need.

Depending on what they have been using, it can affect the way their body responds to food and can include reduced appetite, lack of interest in food and difficulty keeping food down.

Over time, this can really start to have an impact on their body. Encouraging and providing a healthy, balanced diet can help improve their wellbeing and help support their body to go through withdrawal.

They are likely to have ups and downs, and acknowledging when things are going well can help. Success may be as simple as achieving their goals of a drug-free day, eating well or exercising. Celebrate success, even the little things. Every bit helps.

Encourage them to do other activities to take their mind off the situation - especially if they are experiencing cravings or withdrawal symptoms. Listening to music, watching a movie or going for a walk are just a few options that might make it easier. Decide together on a few options that are doable, and join in where you can.

Explore together what reminders might be motivating for them. These could be the reasons they decided to change. This can help focus their attention, which can make it easier to deal with challenges.

Exploring the situation together can help to identify things that are going well and things that aren't. A pros and cons list is one way to do that. You could answer these questions

  • What would be the benefits/pros of changing?
  • What would be the costs/cons of changing?
  • What would be the benefits/pros of staying exactly the same?
  • What would be the costs/cons of staying exactly the same?

Encourage them to be honest about the positive things they get from the drug use to allow them to properly weigh up whether there are more benefits to making changes. After you have done this, ask them to look at everything they have written down and think about whether using the drug has more positives or negatives for their life.

Taking care of yourself

It’s common to feel lonely, worried or emotionally exhausted when supporting someone. Consider reaching out to people who can support you and talk with them about what you’re going through. You can call Family Drug Support (0800 337 877) or visit their website to talk about it and explore your options.

Remember:

  • This situation is not your fault.
  • You don’t need to control everything.
  • You don’t have to appear like you are OK.
  • If you are supporting your child through this, remember they need you to be a parent more than a friend.

Here are some other suggestions from people who have been in similar situations:

Consider talking this through with someone or writing it down. These are suggestions from family members:

We kept a pretty firm schedule for our family. It was much easier for us all to manage our feelings when all the day-to-day things were predictable.

 

It was hard, but I needed to learn how to let other people help me. I was so used to trying to keep everything under control, not let anyone see how stressed we all were. I needed to face reality. I couldn't keep that up forever. I'm not superhuman.

 

We made a fuss over every achievement. Celebrating every success the kids had at school. We tried to have some time each week when we could just have fun together. It didn't always work out, but we tried. Things were hard, but we knew we loved each other.

If someone in your home drinks or uses other drugs, talk with them and try to agree on expectations and boundaries. This can be helpful even if their drug use isn't causing problems.

Think about what you need to have trust, stability and respect in your home or relationship. Without setting boundaries, it can be hard to deal with what’s going on. Everyone has different limits for different things, so be mindful of your own.

  • Define the boundary. Come to an agreement that everyone is OK with.
  • Set the boundary. Let everyone that is helping out know what boundaries you agreed on.
  • Keep the boundary. Consistency is important.

Boundaries will change as the situation changes. With each change, make sure the new boundaries are made clear with everyone involved. Boundaries can encourage awareness and understanding between those who are using drugs and their friends and whānau.

Your wellbeing is important. It's easy to put that to the side when you're focusing on others. You might like to reflect on these questions to figure out if you want to do anything differently. The acronym to remember this quick check is NEST - nutrition, exercise, sleep, and time for yourself.

Nutrition
Are you eating regularly and getting a balanced diet?

Exercise
Are you getting enough physical activity? Physical activity can reduce stress and improve your mood – even a small amount is helpful. This could be a walk around the block or a run around the park.

Sleep
Are you sleeping ok? Stress usually disrupts your sleep patterns, which can seriously affect your mood. These things might help:

  • Be physically active during the day.
  • Have 1 hour of winding down time before bed.
  • Get up at the same time every morning.
  • Avoid napping during the day.
  • Write down what’s on your mind to avoid those thoughts going round and round in your head.
  • Avoid coffee, caffeine, energy drinks and cigarettes before bed.
  • Try drinking non-caffeinated hot drinks to help relax.

Time for yourself
Do you have enough time for yourself? You might like to create time to relax and unwind, even for just 5 minutes. That can go a long way to reducing stress and improving mood. Keep in mind that downtime is different for everyone. Do what works best for you.

Where you can go for support

When we are supporting other people, it can be easy to forget that we need our own support as well. Family support gives you a space to talk about what is going on for yourself and meet other people that are going through similar experiences. It can help you strengthen your relationship with the people in your life that are using drugs and make positive changes. Here is some of the support available in New Zealand:

  • Call Family Drug Support on 0800 337 877 to talk about what you are going through. They provide one to one counselling for family/whānau members using the 5-Step Method.  They are available for anyone in New Zealand. You can refer yourself via their website. Online support is also available via the Supportline 9 am to 10 pm, 7 days a week.  
  • Call Brave Hearts on 0508 272 834 for support. They have online and in person meetings and can have someone run a family meeting for you in person, on the phone or online. You can also visit their website to see stories from people in similar situations.
  • Call the Alcohol Drug Helpline on 0800 787 797 or text them at 8681 to talk with them and find out what support is available. They are a good place to start if you want to know what support is available in your area. The helpline has experienced professionals who provide a confidential and free service to anyone affected by drugs.
  • Kina Trust has information and advice for the families of people who use drugs and alcohol and are experiencing problems because of it. You can read about or watch videos of the experiences of others who are in a similar situation to you.

For more information on what support may be available near you, see Health Point.

It can also be helpful to check in with people who care about you. This doesn’t have to be a serious conversation. It can help you feel connected to other people and see a different point of view.