What to do if you find out your loved one is an opioid addict

What to do when you find out a family member is an addict. (Photo: Getty Images)
What to do when you find out a family member is an addict. (Photo: Getty Images)

When I received the phone call telling me that my family member, someone I love so very much, came forward with a confession that he was addicted to opioids, I felt like somebody had pressed a pause button on my body. I stopped breathing, until eventually the punches of my heart made me start to pant, and the black and white specks that filled my eyes hinted to my brain that I was about to pass out. I did just that, for a couple of seconds, until my eyes blinked open to the sights and smells of the city, all while my body stayed put, up against an abandoned storefront on one of the busiest streets in Manhattan.

Addicted to opioids? What did that even mean? Couldn’t they just stop? I had never personally known anyone who was addicted to anything. My knowledge of addiction was anything but intimate, and came from watching the VH1 reality show Celebrity Rehab back in 2011. I had heard stories from people who knew people who had used painkillers and never were able to stop, but it wasn’t something I thought about. And even though I knew opioid addiction was a national crisis, I never imagined it would rock my own family.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 115 Americans on average die every day from a drug overdose involving an opioid, and even more suffer the debilitating effects of addiction. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry, shows that 9.9 percent — or more than 23.3 million Americans — have been diagnosed with a drug use disorder. Many of them are untreated.

When I was finally able to pick myself up from the ground and face the reality that my loved one was about to commence a tough struggle ahead (from detoxing to finding the right treatment plan, and so much more), I scoured the internet for answers, wondering what to do next. Now that I’ve faced this horrible reality head-on, it feels like the most important thing I can do is speak out about how to help someone who finds themselves in the shoes that I was in.

So, if you just discovered that a loved one is struggling with an addiction to opioids, these are the three most important first steps to take.

Educate yourself on the next steps

The first few hours after you find out a family member is struggling with addiction, you’ll find yourself searching the internet for answers, for help, and for the knowledge you need to determine your immediate next steps.

I remember sitting in front of my laptop, with tears streaming down my face and mounds of worry in my chest, wondering what to do. Was rehab the answer? Was taking my loved one to an addiction specialist the best course of action? What if we just did nothing? Would the addiction “problem” go away?

Shalonda K. Crawford, a psychologist who specializes in addiction, recommends first getting acquainted with a list of ways your loved one can get immediate treatment and help.

“Be prepared with possible options for local addiction counselors, groups, programs, rehabs centers that are available,” Crawford tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

If you’re looking for resources, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous , as well as the Alcohol & Drug Help Line (800-821-4357) provide referrals to local facilities where adolescents and adults can seek help. These are often helpful starting points, but it’s important to remember that when you’re searching for how to help and what to do, there’s not a one-size-fits-all action plan.

Brook McKenzie, the director of Clinical Outreach and Family Liaison for New Method Wellness, suggests educating yourself on best practices for supporting your loved one.

“A study conducted at Indiana University examined the roles of the environment in what scientists call the ‘gene-environment interaction,’” McKenzie tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “For men, strong social ties are protective factors against substance abuse even if they are genetically predisposed to developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol. They benefit from the strong emotional support of loved ones who will help them disengage from their addictive behavior; for women, the inverse is true. Women benefit more from programs that will help them divide the burden of relationships and lighten their load.”

Find others going through the same thing

When I first found out that my loved one was addicted to opioids, I convinced myself that I was the only person in my world going through something like this. Because of that, I decided to keep my struggle, and the struggles that my family were going through, a complete secret.

“This can be a very isolating experience,” Chris Budnick, the executive director at recovery center Healing Transitions, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Do things to combat the effects of isolation.” Budnick suggests finding other people with similar experiences or seeking support from those who have gone through this journey before.

I worked overtime to do the opposite. I committed to keeping those around me in the dark, and after months of fighting through personal depression, moments of self-doubt because I felt like the situation was hopeless, and pouring hours into research, I decided to Google, “Where can family members seek support when they find out their loved one is an addict?”

I came across two organizations, Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, which are groups filled with family members of those addicted to either drugs or alcohol, who come together and talk about the problems they face, the questions they have, and the personal troubles that they are facing.

Know your personal options

Days after I got the phone call about my loved one’s addiction, I jumped on the next flight back home. I’m self-employed, which meant I didn’t have to alert my boss about what was going on, or have to use vacation or sick days. I was lucky to be able to drop everything and head home to help. I could provide direct care to my loved one: taking him to doctors appointments, helping him get through the detox period, and researching what to do next, all while doing business work in the middle of the night or early in the morning.

Whether you’re your own boss or you work for a company, McKenzie says that if your loved one needs direct care or assistance with getting help, you may be eligible for assistance through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

“This enables employees to take extended time off from work to take care of personal or family needs that may include maternity or paternity leave, elder care, and substance abuse treatment,” McKenzie says. “FMLA applies to those who are covered by employer-based health insurance if you meet certain conditions.”

If you find yourself in this position, the most important thing to remember is you’re not alone. While you are helping your loved one, make sure to take time for self-care too.

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