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How to Help Someone Who Has an Addiction

Helping a friend or family member who has an addiction can be difficult. Here are a few helpful things to do and hurtful things to avoid.

As a shepherd to your friend or family member with an addiction, you need support and a prayer team. The enemy uses addiction as one tool to capture good people into bondage, and he will never give up trying to hold on. The battle becomes fierce at times, and you, the helper, will need support. Your team approach of resources and people must include intercessors for you. Fatigue, discouragement, illness, confusion, and misunderstanding are common. But don't turn from the challenge! Helping someone find freedom in Christ is the most rewarding service we can offer the kingdom of God on earth—so here are some helpful things to say and do:

1. Do know that the first task is to understand what is going on. From that information, discern what type of help is appropriate.

2. Do realize that an addict is never "recovered." Just as sanctification or growing up in Christ is never finished, neither is recovery. The disease of addiction lurks waiting to re-ensnare the victim. Learned young as a coping strategy, those automatic responses dim over time with the practice of recovery rituals and right thinking, but never really goes away. Just as Paul embraced his "thorn" as an opportunity to live in Christ's strength and to accept his weakness, so the addict is always in recovery, completely dependent on Christ's power. The good news is that Christ's power is greater than the power of the addiction—the recovery addict can rest safely in his care.

3. Do understand that it takes a while for her change from impaired thinking to recovery thinking, and to replace addiction rituals with recovery rituals.

4. Do continually share the truth of Christ's empowerment, and be ready to point it out each time it's experienced. The addict most likely will not recognize Christ's work in the beginning—you'll benefit from saying things like, "Hey Anne, did you realize that God prompted you to call me when you were thinking of getting some beer? That's terrific! Thank You, God, for helping Anne."

5. Do make a statement of the truth of Christ's love rather than a question. For example, "God loves you and you will come to know that," is more helpful than saying, "Don't you know that God loves you?" God is very capable of getting the message they need to hear across in a way she'll be able to receive it.

6. Do be very careful to use word statements of encouragement and support when failure happens instead of a statement that would come across as guilting or shaming—chances are they got enough of that growing up. You may say something like this: "It's true that relapse is part of recovery. You don't know what you don't know, and now you've learned something very important. Get back to your meetings and call me tomorrow to let me know how you're doing. I'll be praying for you."

7. Do know that helping in the early stages is a hand-holding relationship. People who are barely in recovery still have a very foggy brain. They cannot retain information, or do problem solving.

8. Do include them in a loving community as much as they are willing to participate. Remember that at the heart of addiction is a pervasive, deeply felt sense of detachment and alienation. The core beliefs of the addict are based on an impaired capacity to trust—both others and themselves. Offer them an opportunity to experience such a community.

Some hurtful things to avoid:

1. DON'T under any conditions tell someone to stop any chemical use, because abrupt withdrawal can be fatal. Also, without an existing support system, the person is more apt to continue and feel more defeated than ever. Instead, refer him/her to a local hospital for help. The first consideration must be safety. If the person has any obvious active addiction(s), then getting the person detoxed is the first step. This requires professional referral.

2. DON'T assume the presenting problem is the problem. People will ask for help believing that a certain problem(s) is the problem, when often it is the result of an undiagnosed and untreated addiction. It is helpful to have an addiction guideline to use when evaluating what might be addiction rather than problematic behaviors.

3. DON'T make it your goal to eliminate their pain. Often it's pain that will motivate her to seek help. Instead, help her find the appropriate help she needs. Walk with her in this search.

4. DON'T mistake a pattern for an addiction. Understanding the difference will give greater clarity for referral, and will help define the shepherd's role. A shepherd wants to make sure they do not enable the addict to continue in her negative behaviors, but rather motivates the addict to move toward positive life patterns.

5. DON'T assume an addict who's been referred to a therapist has all the help she needs. She'll benefit from additional encouragement and support from those who are available to her, and will understand the addiction process. Expressing support within healthy boundaries by consistently extending the love of Christ in the power of his Spirit is a key aspect of effective shepherding.

6. DON'T underestimate the spiritual component of the recovery process. The truth of who God says they are and who God is will be of critical importance in replacing core beliefs gained in childhood that have so negatively impacted the addiction.

Mary Anne Fifield is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and is founder and clinical director of the Addiction Recovery Center. This article excerpted from Shepherding Women in Pain. ©2010 by Bev Hislop. Used by permission of Moody Publishers.

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