When family members or loved ones abuse opioids, it affects everyone they know. Their addiction can have emotional, psychological, financial, and environmental effects on the people who care about them most.

Opioid addiction affects millions of people in the United States, with rates continuing to rise. Many hold the belief that a person they know and love would never abuse drugs, but opioids are uniquely dangerous because they can be acquired legally and for legitimate medical reasons. Most people struggling with an opioid addiction start with a doctor’s prescription and don’t realize they are abusing the drug until a strong dependency has formed.

The negative consequences associated with alcohol and drug dependence are well documented; however, less attention is given to the consequences that are experienced by the family members and friends of substance abusing individuals. Without proper coping mechanisms, the stress of caring for a loved one who is struggling with addiction can result in chronic medical and psychological health problems, significant financial burden, and an overall reduction in quality of life. Thankfully, a number of resources and care models have emerged to empower family members affected by substance dependence, offering strategies that allow these family members to better care for themselves, and, as a result, better support their loved ones.

Recognizing Opioid Addiction

As a friend or family member, you are more likely to notice and acknowledge signs of addiction than your loved one. In the early stages, you may not recognize particular behaviors as signs of a dangerous dependence. Signs of addiction don’t always appear at once, so you may have trouble pinpointing them. Look out for:

  • Social withdrawal or sudden shifts in friend groups
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
  • A decline in personal hygiene
  • Nervous, irritable or quickly shifting moods
  • A breakdown in sleep schedule
  • Tardiness or excessive absence at work

Addiction often looks like a strange shift in personality. Happy-go-lucky individuals become moody and withdrawn. Active people lose all interest in exercise. Social butterflies stop leaving the house. In other words, the person seems to stop being themselves. If you notice a personality change in your loved one, accompanied by any of the above signs, they may be struggling with opioid addiction.

The first step to addiction recovery is to bring the drug abuse to light. Denial is a critical factor in the development of addiction, so getting through to your loved one requires a delicate approach. Try these tips to defuse the situation and open an honest dialogue

  • Use “I” statements: Never use accusatory language when talking to someone with opioid addiction. The simplest way to avoid the pitfall of accidental accusation is to speak in “I” statements whenever possible. “I” statements are usually formatted like this: “When you skipped my birthday party, I felt worried and confused.” This format allows you to acknowledge problematic behavior spurred by the addiction, but it circles back to the action’s effect on you rather than demanding an explanation or otherwise berating your loved one.
  • Focus on impact: Your “I” statements should always speak to the impact of the addiction itself, rather than the person struggling. Separating the person from their addiction helps provide perspective and reminds the individual that their destructive behaviors are not a core part of their identity.
  • Focus on health: Do everything you can to ensure your loved one knows you’re worried about their health and aren’t angry at them. Mention any addiction-related health issues you have noticed and how they have affected the person’s quality of life. Staying health-focused helps avoid the feelings of shame that often prevent individuals with addiction from engaging openly.

A loved one with opioid addiction is much more likely to respond positively to a combination of these approaches than to any single one by itself. As a friend or family member, this delicate balancing act may be difficult, and not every individual will respond to a one-on-one conversation. Addiction tells people there’s nothing wrong, and convincing them may take more coordinated action.