One of the most frustrating things on earth is watching someone you love throw their life away on an addiction.
It seems like nothing you say or do gets through to them. In fact the more you try to help them, the deeper they seem to sink into their addiction.
Sometimes that’s just annoying. Other times it’s a life and death situation.
If someone is addicted to coffee, you may not approve, but the chance are they’ll be ok. If they’re addicted to smoking, it may well be killing them, but it’s happening slowly and it may or may not affect them. If they’re addicted to alcohol, illegal or legal drugs they could be in more imminent danger. If they’re addicted to starving themselves, you may be watching them die.
Yet, despite this they don’t seem to be able to get their heads around the damage that they are doing to themselves. It’s as though the connections between what they ‘know’ is happening and the consequences to them are entirely gone.
I know this from personal experience.
I was a smoker for 17 years. I started when I was 21 (entirely old enough to know better) and quit 5 years ago. I can remember people saying to me “you know it’s bad for you right?” as though I was a moron or lived under a rock or something. People on the street would come up to me and say things like “It’ll stunt your growth you know”. I think they thought that was funny as I’m 6ft tall and a grown ass woman. My mum (an ex smoker) hated the fact I smoked and would ask me repeatedly to quit.
None of that made any difference.
It wasn’t about education either. As I said, I started smoking when I was 21. I was working as a microbiologist in Liverpool having been to University studying Biochemistry. I knew what smoking did to a body. I knew what it ‘could’ do to me. The thing was, it didn’t really do anything nasty at first. It was just a laugh with mates when we were out drinking. By the time I’d developed a smokers cough, I was already well into the addicted part.
So what made me try to quit? For me it was my best friend. I was complaining to her about people moaning at me about smoking and she said “So, are you just going to smoke until you die?” That was it. No attitude, no lecture, just a question. A question I had to think about. As I thought about it over the next couple of weeks I realised I didn’t want to die a smoker. I could visualise what my old woman self would look like smoking and coughing, wheezing along, maybe with an oxygen tank….and it horrified me. So then I had to think, well if I don’t want to die smoking, I’m going to have to quit at some point. Why not now? I mean it’s not like it’s going to get any easier?
Here’s my advice.
- Don’t Nag – it’s annoying and it just makes people dig their heals in.
- Don’t lecture – it just makes the person being lectured at think up opposite arguments, which then helps to persuade them that what they’re doing is OK
- Don’t promise rewards for abstinence – study after study has shown that offering rewards convinces the psyche that it must mean that thing they are being asked to do is difficult.
- Model the behaviour you want them to adopt. If you have someone in your life who is drinking too much, don’t drink around them. Don’t make a thing of it, just don’t do it. If you do what you are asking them not to, it just normalizes it for them and they think you’re an idiot.
- Spend time with them. Show them they are loved and worth loving. One of the main reasons people self harm (and addiction IS a form of self harm) is because they don’t like themselves very much
- Do fun stuff that distracts from their addiction. The more good stuff they have going on in their lives, the less room there is for bad stuff.
- Ask questions. Get them to think about what they are doing, in their own time, in their own way
- Be prepared for the fact that you may never get through to them. Ultimately you have to accept that it’s their life to live.
One final note – don’t forget to look after yourself. Don’t get obsessed with their addiction. It won’t help you or them. Take care of yourself and model healthy, social behaviour. It’s more powerful than you know.
If you or someone you know has an issue with addiction, get help. You do not have to deal with this on your own. There are plenty of support groups online and in person. There are also thousands of professionals out there who can help you.
Good luck on your journey