Supporting someone through home-based withdrawal
Withdrawal from a drug such as crystal methamphetamine (ice), cannabis or heroin is also called detoxification (detox). It is part of the recovery process.1
When drugs are used repeatedly over a period of time, they can cause changes in the chemistry of the body and brain. The body adapts to having the drug present and the person using the drug only feels 'normal' when they are using it. If use of the drug stops, the body has to adapt. This is known as withdrawal and is the body's response to working without the drug.2
Each drug has different withdrawal symptoms, and some are more severe than others. The factors affecting the intensity and length of withdrawal can include:
Common withdrawal symptoms for:
There are a number of options for withdrawal. This fact sheet focuses on home-based withdrawal, which involves the person going through withdrawal while living in their own home or some other safe place as opposed to going to a drug and alcohol treatment service or withdrawal facility.
It's possible to withdraw at home when the withdrawal symptoms are predicted to be mild to moderate in severity and support is available from a family member or friend.
If you are considering supporting someone withdrawing from alcohol and/or other drugs, it is important that the person speaks to a health professional beforehand as complications can occur and they may need medical assistance. The health worker can also help with other aspects of the withdrawal, including post-withdrawal support.
There are a number of things you can do to support a person going through withdrawal to have a better chance of success.
Before withdrawal begins
Talk to the health professional supervising the withdrawal to make sure you are clear about your role and understand what you will need to do to help the person through their withdrawal.
Familiarise yourself with the effects of the drug that your friend or family member is using. It will be useful to know what to expect from the withdrawal, approximately how long the withdrawal symptoms may last, and the common symptoms of withdrawal for the drug.
Try to make sure that there are no drugs or alcohol in the house so the person going through withdrawal is not tempted.5
It is important to understand that withdrawing from a drug is not a cure for dependence. The person withdrawing has many things to work on before they are free from drug dependence. They will need to address the underlying issues of why they are using drugs – otherwise, a relapse is likely. Undertaking a withdrawal indicates that a person has reached a significant turning point in their life. The reality of their problem has been recognised and a decision to change has been made.6
Encourage the person you are supporting to write down why they are choosing to withdraw and what advantages and disadvantages there are to using drugs. Later, when they are experiencing negative moments or 'hanging out', they can return to their list and remind themselves of their reasons for giving up.
Lapse and relapse
Using drugs during withdrawal can happen, so it is a good idea to talk about the possibility beforehand and have a plan of what to do if it happens. Using drugs (other than prescribed medication) during withdrawal can be viewed as a lapse or mistake. The person may choose to give up the withdrawal and continue to use the drug (relapse), or accept that it was a temporary mistake (lapse) and continue with the withdrawal. If the person decides that it was only a lapse and continues with the withdrawal, it's good to talk about what happened and why, and what worked well and what didn't in helping them get through that stage. It is also good to discuss what could be done differently in the future to prevent further lapses.7
Be on the lookout for an overdose if they do lapse or relapse, as tolerance to the drug may be reduced after attempting withdrawal and the possibility of an overdose will increase.
Get support for yourself
You may have to take some time off work and organise additional help to look after other family members.1
Have support organised for yourself, and make sure there is someone you can talk to if things get difficult. State and territory alcohol and drug information services can direct you to counselling, additional information and referral to services, and can put you in touch with specialist family help lines and support groups. These services are often run by friends and family members of people who use drugs, so they will understand your situation.
Discourage people who use drugs from visiting. Anyone who may cause stress or tension will only make it harder for the person going through withdrawal.1
Be there during the tough times. The media often portrays the symptoms of withdrawal as a person thrashing around on the floor in extreme agony and vomiting. Going 'cold turkey' when withdrawing can be extremely uncomfortable, but there have been many advances in the field of recovery and medically supervised detoxification that can help ease painful symptoms. This is another reason why it is important that you both speak to a health professional before the withdrawal is undertaken.
If the person you are supporting is struggling with cravings, it is advisable for them to talk to their health professional.
Challenging any illogical thoughts during withdrawal is a very important function of a support person. If the person withdrawing begins to have unpleasant symptoms, or if they are questioning whether withdrawal was really a good idea, encourage them to read through their personal list of reasons for going through withdrawal. It can also be useful to think in a positive way about negative symptoms, such as looking at them as signs the body is getting rid of toxins or doing what it is supposed to be doing.7
Eating well can reduce the mood swings that are often a feature of withdrawal. Try to encourage good nutrition as a part of the withdrawal process and ongoing treatment plan. Poor dietary habits can contribute to increased cravings and the risk of relapse. A varied diet rich in good carbohydrates and proteins, fresh fruit and vegetables, essential fats (oily fish, nuts, etc.) and plenty of water can help minimise withdrawal symptoms.8 Check with the supervising health professional about whether a multi-vitamin supplement would be useful, particularly if the person withdrawing is struggling to eat.
It is good to encourage the person you are supporting to drink lots of fluids. The recommended daily intake is approximately six to eight glasses (at least 150 ml each) of a variety of non-alcoholic drinks. This could be a combination of water with a dash of lemon juice, fruit juice, cordial mixed with water and non-fizzy mineral water. Also, try to keep the fluids going in throughout the day, with the person taking small sips all the time.7,9
Keep the person busy so they don't have time to dwell on how they are feeling. Remember that they will have a short concentration span and their memory may not be functioning very well. Watching TV or movies, taking walks or short car rides, reading magazines and taking short trips may be good activities to try.1
Help the person to manage stress by using basic techniques such as talking, exercise or massage.
It is important that support is organised for after the withdrawal to assist with the person's anxiety about not using drugs or drinking alcohol and getting their life back on track, which could play an integral part in relapse prevention.
Appropriate support services may include:
Family Drug Help
Family Drug Support
These organisations provide support for families faced with problematic drug use.
1. BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information. (2012). The coping kit: dealing with addiction in your family.
2. Matua Raki National Workforce Development. (2010). P**d off: a guide for people trying to stop using meth/P/ice/speed.
3. Campbell, A. (2000). The Australian Illicit Drug Guide. Melbourne: Black Inc.
4. Brands, B., Sproule, B., & Marshman, J. (eds). (1998). Drugs and Drug Abuse (3rd ed.). Ontario: Addiction Research Foundation.
5. HelpGuide.org. (2016). Alcohol abuse treatment and self-help: how to stop drinking and start recovery.
6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Principles of drug addiction treatment: a research-based guide.
7. Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre & Australian Drug Foundation. (2012). Your guide to drug withdrawal. Melbourne: Australian Drug Foundation.
8. Grotzkyj-Giorgi, M. (2009). Nutrition and addiction: can dietary changes assist with recovery? Drugs and Alcohol Today 9(2).
9. NSW Department of Health Mental Health and Drug & Alcohol Office. (2007). Drug and alcohol withdrawal clinical practice guidelines.
Last updated: 13 April 2016