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Seeing someone you care about spin out of control


In this guest blog post Wayne Skinner, Deputy Clinical Director in CAMH’s Ambulatory Care & Structured Treatment Program and Head of the Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario, discusses what friends and family can do when a loved one is suffering from addiction.

It’s hard when someone you care about starts to spin out of control because of an addictive behaviour. You want to do something, but what?  You wish they would recognize the need to take action.  It would be so much easier if they would just admit the obvious, clean up their act, get some help. You might have tried persuasion, or predicted disaster, or made threats, had countless arguments, been blunt and confrontational – anything to avoid the coming catastrophe.  But it hasn’t worked. Your best efforts have left you feeling conflicted and at odds with the person you care about.

You may have given up, become fed up, and backed away. Or, if you couldn’t get out of the situation, you stayed put, held your tongue and just tried to keep the peace. And maybe for a while things will turn for the better. So you try to be supportive and hope the person is on the mend.

When we are in such situations, we can be hard on ourselves.  What have I done that has been a factor in these problems?  What should I be doing differently to get this turned around?  You might hear language that puts blame on you and others who are trying the best they can to both cope with and improve the situation. One term commonly used is “enabler” – that’s what you may be called if you can’t get someone you care about to accept that they need help. The term is hugely problematic, especially when it’s delivered with a judgmental flair. No one can force someone to accept help if they do not want to receive it.

Showing compassion and care

Recently, we’ve done a better job of getting away from being judgmental about addiction and mental illness – we now recognize that they are health issues that require compassion and care.  But, we haven’t done such a good job of understanding the challenges that come with seeing someone you love becoming ill. Stereotyping family members as enablers fails to respect the knot that you can get tied up in when you really worried about someone you love whose life in serious trouble.

Do you quit on the person and just move on? Some people do. While that is understandable, there are others who do hang in there.
However, when people with mental health and addiction problems do get help, it is their ability to tap into and draw on positive social support that shapes their long-term recovery.

So what can you do when someone you care about could benefit from help?

First of all, never forget that this can only happen to you because you care about someone.   No care, no worry.  But you are worried, and you want to do something about it.

The next thing is to take a step back.  Acknowledge your feelings and the fact that they are affecting you. Your ability to stay strong is a key ingredient in finding the recovery solutions that can emerge over time.

Start to do simple things on a day to day basis like:

•    eating well
•    exercising
•    getting enough sleep
•    engaging in positive social contact, self-care and spiritual practices.

Find someone to talk to

Family members often report that being able to connect with others who are going down the same road, or have already lived through the experience, gave them support and a chance to feel listened to, and get practical tips. Having someone to talk your experience over with, someone you can trust, can make a big difference.  Formal counselling, such as seeing someone through an Employee Assistance Program, a family service agency, or a community-based therapist, are other options..
You can help tip the balance toward hope by focusing not only on the need for your loved one to get help but also the benefits they stand to gain.  These can include:

  • feeling better about themselves
  • having some meaningful goals to work for and achieve
  • reconnecting to people who care about them.

Recovery may be a bumpy road, but it’s a much better journey when you have caring people who are travelling it with you.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Patricia Teskey #

    This is a very helpful article. Many thanks to Mr. Skinner for sharing his knowledge with the people who care the most and are affected the most — family and friends. One insight I am particularly grateful for is that Mr. Skinner comes right out and says that “stereotyping family members as “enablers” fails to respect the knot that you can get tied up in when you are really worried about someone you love whose life in serious trouble.” Families and friends who hang in there and continue to care about the addicted or mentally ill person who refuses help need to ignore the judgmental criticism because, as Mr. Skinner says, “when people with mental health and addiction problems do get help, it is their ability to tap into and draw on positive social support that shapes their long-term recovery.”

    November 22, 2013
  2. Wayne Skinner #

    Thanks for those comments, Patricia. I really think we need a more compassionate approach that respects how hard the the journey into illness is on not just the sufferer but those who care about that person. Seeing things get worse rather than better, in spite of your best intentions and efforts is a painful thing to witness. People who have positive support have one of the most important advantages for successful outcomes down the long, often bumpy, road of recovery.
    Best wishes,

    November 22, 2013

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