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Dealing With a Family Member’s Opioid Addiction

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 03, 2022

Before you even considered the possibility of opioid use disorder (opioid addiction), you probably had some concerns about your family member. Perhaps you noticed one or more of these signs:

  • They were spending time with different people or avoiding you and longtime friends
  • Poor hygiene
  • Loss of interest in favorite hobbies or activities
  • Changes in their eating and sleeping habits
  • Nervousness, irritability, or sudden mood changes
  • Uneven attendance at work or school
  • Brushes with the law
  • Financial problems

In 2019, more than 10 million people over age 12 misused a prescription opioid or used heroin. For family members, dealing with the reality of these statistics is hard. You may find yourself in denial. Or you may wonder, what could I possibly do to help? How do you help someone who may not want your help? How do you help yourself?

Nothing about opioid use disorder (OUD) is easy. Finding your way will be an individual journey, just as your loved one’s path through addiction and, hopefully, recovery will be.

The Truth About ‘Tough Love’

People with a substance use disorder (SUD) can act in ways that anger family members and push them away. They can betray your trust by stealing from you to buy drugs or even threatening you with harm.

While it’s tempting to use “tough love” when a family member is acting this way, it’s a risky plan, experts say.

Tough love forces a person to hit rock bottom, the idea goes, so that without family support, they’ll want to stop using drugs. In reality, “rock bottom” is a dangerous place to be in this current opioid crisis, when deadly artificial opioids like fentanyl mixed with heroin cause many fatal overdoses.

Addiction is a disease, not a character flaw. Remembering this may help you find the grace and empathy to support your family member through one of the biggest challenges of their life.

Don’t Wait to Respond

Before you try to help a family member with OUD, educate yourself. Read up on opioid addiction. Take a close look at their behavior. Where do you see a problem? This will help you describe what you’ve observed. Then:

  • Don’t wait to seek help. Try to get ahead of the problem before your loved one suffers damaging personal, work, or health problems. Seeking help now can make treatment less overwhelming and disruptive for your family member.
  • Talk to a doctor, a counselor, an addiction specialist, clergy, or any other professional who’s trained to help you.
  • Tell them what kinds of opioids you think your family member is using, how often they use drugs, how long you think they’ve used them, whether they’ve had legal, work, or school issues, and any other patterns you see.
  • Remember to take care of yourself. You can support your family members better if you’re mentally and physically well.
  • Don’t be afraid to set boundaries to ensure your safety and financial well-being.

The Best Ways to Respond

When you think a family member has OUD:

  • Approach them with love and without judgment to express your concern about their opioid use.
  • Talk to them when they’re sober, so they’re able to listen to you calmly.
  • Be supportive and patient as you help them find treatment.

Addiction experts say medication-assisted treatment (MAT), combined with counseling and other forms of support, works well to treat OUD. Methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone are the most common treatments. Each works differently, but people with addiction use them to manage drug cravings; stop withdrawal symptoms; or block opioids from acting on the brain, preventing a high.

When your loved one seems to be doing well for a while, you may be tempted to encourage them to wean themselves off treatment medications. Don’t. Used correctly, these medications aren’t addictive, and your family member can use them safely for years.

Leave the details of treatment to your family member and their addiction specialist. When they’re in treatment, they mostly need your support and encouragement to help keep them there.

What if Your Family Member Relapses?

Recovering from OUD is hard. About half of those in treatment will eventually relapse. Try not to give in to hopelessness, but continue to encourage your family member to get themselves well. They can learn from their relapse and move forward with recovery.  Drug treatment today focuses on reducing harm and preventing overdose deaths in case of relapse.

Make sure you know the signs of an opioid overdose:

  • Tiny pupils
  • Slow or weak breathing
  • Inability to speak
  • Pale or bluish skin
  • Purple lips or fingernails
  • Limpness
  • Vomiting
  • Snoring or gurgling
  • Unconsciousness

The medication naloxone is fast, safe, and works well to treat opioid overdose. You spray it in the person’s nose or inject it. It works by blocking the effects of opioids on the brain. It’s not addictive. You can get naloxone without a prescription in most states. Encourage your family member to carry it with them, like a person with allergies would carry an EpiPen.

If you think they’re overdosing, call 911 immediately.

Recognizing the signs of overdose, having naloxone on hand, and knowing how to use it can save critical time, especially in areas with longer ambulance wait times.

Don’t Give Up

Refusing to ignore or endure your loved one’s addiction will improve their chances of a successful recovery. These are things you can always do:

  • Act on your suspicions and reach out for professional help right away.
  • When your family member is in treatment, ask how you can support their recovery.
  • Keep in touch. Addiction is a disease of isolation.
  • Remember that you’re also not alone. Reach out for help when you need it.

Resources for Families

Get Naloxone Now offers lifesaving training to family members, first responders, and everyone else. This website teaches them what to do during an opioid overdose and how and where to get naloxone.

SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has lots of information for families, including one-page guides on topics like Starting the Conversation about your family member’s drug use and What Is Substance Abuse Treatment?: A Booklet for Families.

Partnership to End Addiction is a site aimed at families of teens and young adults dealing with addiction and substance use.

Seeking Drug Abuse Treatment: Know What to Ask from the National Institute on Drug Abuse offers guidance for finding treatment programs.

Enter your zip code into SAMHSA’s findtreatment.gov site to learn about local treatment options, types of treatment facilities, and potential costs of treatment, among other information.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Society of Anesthesiologists: "Opioid Abuse."

American Medical Association: "Opioid-use Disorder: Treat the Family, Not Just the Patient."

American Society of Addiction Medicine: “Opioid Addiction Treatment: A Guide for Patients, Families and Friends.”

CDC: “Evidence-Based Strategies for Preventing Opioid Overdose: What’s Working in the United States,” "Lifesaving Naloxone."

FamilyDoctor.org: "Coping with a Family Member's Opioid Addiction."

Harvard Health Blog: "When a Loved One Is Addicted to Opiates."

Health Affairs: "Saving a Life from Opioid Addiction Requires Bold Action from Loved Ones."

Health Care Resource Centers: "Helping a Family Member with Opioid Addiction."

Mayo Clinic: "How to Tell If a Loved One Is Abusing Opioids."

National Institute on Drug Abuse: "Naloxone DrugFacts," “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide, Third Edition.”

Partnership to End Addiction. "Helping an Adult Family Member or Friend with a Drug or Alcohol Addiction," “Risks for Relapse, Overdose and What You Can Do.”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health,” "Resources for Families Coping with Mental and Substance Use Disorders," “What Is Substance Abuse Treatment?: A Booklet for Families.”

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