It’s easy for people who are not so familiar with substance abuse to assume that loved ones struggling with an active addiction can just one day flip a switch and say, “Yes, this is a problem and I’m ready to make a change.” While this change in mindset is definitely required to start the path toward sobriety, it does not happen out of the blue. Or even as a reaction to extreme events like a life-threatening overdose, being fired from a job, or losing one’s kids. One of the most painful things about seeing a loved one struggling is that they seem to hit rock bottom after rock bottom, to the point where you don’t even recognize them anymore. Addicts typically hold little regard for their own safety which is a very frightening thing to witness. But don’t lose hope: accepting help to get out of chemical dependency is a gradual process, and your addicted loved one needs to work on it at their own pace. It is important to neither shame nor enable addicts as this can have adverse effects on their progress toward going to treatment. To help families understand the importance of patience and keeping a healthy distance, addiction treatment programs outline the process with the stages of change.
Understanding Stages of Change
While it may be agonizing to watch a person struggling with substance abuse sabotage themselves over and over, loved ones should be cognizant that change is usually an intensely private, internal experience. Active addicts can behave in ways that are (whether intentionally or not) deceptive, but that is not necessarily an indicator that the person is not making progress toward making a change. By understanding the process addicts go through on the way to recovery, it can help with tough decisions about how to support them toward a positive change.
To illustrate, consider the first three stages of change (out of six):
- Preparation or Determination
Don’t let the sixth stage scare you–it is not always the case, and there are many people in recovery who stop relapsing completely. But looking back at stages 1-3, you can see that there is quite a prolonged process before actually arriving at any kind of action.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
From the outside, it may be impossible to distinguish where a loved one is in the first three stages. They may seem to go back and forth on being ready to get help. That is because they are working through a complex process that may seem drawn out but is ultimately necessary–after all, an addict must be the one to choose to get help.
The stages of change start with precontemplation. Precontemplation describes an active, no-holds-barred addiction. The person doesn’t see any problem with their behavior. At this stage, making a change has more drawbacks than the idea of continuing life as they’re currently leading it.
Usually the consequences of maintaining an addiction start to add up over time, and many will move into the contemplation stage. Contemplation describes the first stage where a person is considering whether they may want to make a change. At this point, they recognize that there are serious issues with their behaviors that negatively affect their circumstances. But at this point the person remains ambivalent about actually committing to a change.
Preparation or Determination. After contemplating change, a person becomes committed to making a change. They recognize their use as problematic and they need to make a healthy change in their life. They are exploring ways to get sober, and may be seeking out treatment options. At this point they are still not 100% ready to take action.
Accepting Help Takes Time
After the first three stages of change, the person gets ready to act and make visible changes to adjust their behavior and lifestyle. This usually means going to treatment. But during these stages, it is important for loved ones not to lose hope and recognize that they are just as necessary as the fourth stage of change (action).
While loved ones may be eager to help a person through stages 1-3 as quickly as possible, any support given should not include any form of enabling or shaming. It is a painful but true reality that addicts must decide for themselves about accepting help to make a change. No one can make that decision for them, although gentle encouragement and providing resources to treatment can help move that process along quicker.
Read More: The Stages of Change in Treatment
If you or a loved one is struggling with a mood disorder or substance abuse problem, our behavioral health counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-997-4702