Drug use in the family
Having a family member who uses drugs can be a source of immense stress, conflict, worry and despair. It is normal to feel helpless, frustrated, worried and upset by someone's drug use. People who use drugs can behave very erratically, and it can be difficult to know how to act around them. Their substance use may contribute to them acting in distressing ways. They may become aggressive, angry and violent, or withdrawn and detached. All members of the family can be affected, and while there are no simple answers, the following strategies may help.
How can I tell if someone is using drugs?
It is difficult to tell with any certainty that someone is using drugs. The effects of drugs vary greatly from person to person. Changes in behaviour or moods may indicate drug use; however, these changes may indicate an issue in the person's life that is not drug-related.
Signs that appear to be uncharacteristic of the person may require your attention, regardless of whether drugs are involved. These signs include:
What is drug dependence?
There are degrees of drug dependence, ranging from mild dependency to compulsive drug use (often referred to as addiction). It is impossible to say how long or how often a person must use a drug before they become dependent, because this varies from person to person and some drugs are more addictive than others.
It is important to understand that the majority of people who take drugs do not become dependent.
Assess the risk
Gather knowledge about drugs and their effects so you can better understand the situation your family may be in. By understanding the effects, you can weigh up the risk to both the person using drugs and those around them.
How you can help
Family members are often well placed to help people make safer choices about drugs and to contact support services for further help.
Define the problem
Identifying a drug problem is never easy. It is often a matter of personal perception. Many experts agree that a drug problem is not measured by how much, how many or what types of drugs a person uses, but by how the drug affects the person's life and the lives of those around them.
Share the problem
Talk to other family members about how they are prepared to be involved in dealing with the person’s drug problem. This conversation can help set expectations and develop a network of support, so family members don’t feel isolated and overwhelmed by the situation.
It is also important that the people around a person who uses drugs share their knowledge about the situation so that a consistent approach can be adopted. Consensus is vital: its absence can enable the person using drugs to take advantage of the people around them.
Choose an appropriate time to talk
If a person is caught at a time when they are unprepared, they may be more inclined to react defensively. Try to remove any distractions, such as phones. Avoid attempting an important discussion while the person is under the influence of drugs.
Explain the problem
Keep the communication open. One of the most important steps in bringing about change is to acknowledge what is going on and to explain how you feel to the person taking drugs.
A person using drugs needs to be ready to change before they stop using them. Talking to the person may not bring about instant change, but it's a start. The following suggestions may help:
Ask calm, respectful questions such as:
These suggestions may be easier said than done, but it is important for the person taking drugs to realise why their behaviour is a problem.
If your family member wants to tell you something about their situation, listen carefully without being judgemental.
Allow and encourage the person to speak in full sentences without interruption.
After they have finished speaking, repeat back to them what you have heard and understood so they can explain any misunderstandings.
Don’t try to solve their problem. It is their problem. Real, long-term change will only occur when the person takes responsibility for their actions and deals with the consequences. You are not helping them (or yourself) by 'cleaning up' the mess they create.
Help them be responsible
It would be natural for you to try to protect your family member or friend from the problems caused by their drug use. But you aren’t helping them (or yourself) by ‘cleaning up’ the mess they make.
Communicate rules about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in your home and the consequences of breaking the rules. Work out your limits, be clear and direct, and stick to what you say.
Find treatment options
There are many treatment and support options available. Different approaches work for different people at different times. Sometimes a person isn’t ready to stop using drugs yet, but treatment options that focus on reducing the harms may be helpful.
Acknowledge the small changes
It can be hard to stay positive when someone you love is struggling with the effects of drugs and all the issues that using them can cause. But try to acknowledge the positive steps made towards dealing with these challenges better, by both the person using drugs and yourself.
Coping with a bad reaction to a drug
If you are worried about anyone who has drunk alcohol or taken drugs call an ambulance by dialling triple zero (000). Ambulance officers don’t need to involve the police.
Get support for you and your family
Support for you and your family is very important during this difficult time. It can be particularly hard for you when the person using drugs is not ready to change their behaviour. Even when they do decide to change their behaviour, it can take a long time and there can be many setbacks along the way.
Talking with a friend: It may help to discuss the problem with a friend. Talking about how you feel may help clarify your thoughts and work out what you're going to do. It may just help to get things off your chest. It is easier to talk to someone you trust and are comfortable with. They may already be aware that something is wrong. They may have been in a similar situation themselves. People are usually very willing to help a friend, but they often have to be asked.