Do you think a loved one has a problem with pain meds? Want to talk to them about it, but not sure how?
Maybe it’s just a hunch, or maybe you’re absolutely certain — your loved one is struggling with pain meds, a.k.a. opioids, the term most often used in terrifying headlines ripping through the nation lately. So how do you talk to them about it in the most constructive, helpful way possible?
Step 1: Know the ins-and-outs of addiction and opioids.
You’re already on your way by reading this, so good for you! One basic must-know is that addiction is a widely confirmed health problem, despite a persisting longstanding myth that it is some sort of moral failing (you can even check out the 50+ page Surgeon General Report that came out last year on this, if that’s your thing!). Beyond that, other helpful things to know are the signs of opioid addiction and overdose, and options for treatment.
Step 2: Sort through your own emotions around the issue.
Once you’re armed with the facts, it’s time to do some soul searching. Why? Because even when you know it’s a health condition (see step 1), addiction is by nature an emotionally messy and confusing disease, for the addict as well as you, the one that loves them. Sorting out your emotions in advance will prepare you to come into the conversation with a level-head and compassionate heart.
Learn about the common emotions that might be popping up on your end and how to deal with them, as well as why your loved one might not be acting so lovely lately.
Step 3: Prepare in advance for the conversation.
Once you’re in the know from steps one and two, it’s time to hammer out the details of your conversation ahead of time. Choose a time when it is likely to be calm for you and your loved one and totally private. Write down the key points you want to make in advance, to avoid getting scattered in a heat of the moment conversation. Some people even find it helpful to just write a letter and hand-deliver it, have the person read it, and say you’d appreciate if you guys can work through your thoughts together when they are ready. If you have a trusted friend or counselor you can confide in, role play what you plan to say or do in advance, and have them react in different ways to prepare you.
Step 4: Have the conversation.
Above all else, remember to always ground the conversation in your concern and unconditional love for them! Emphasize, repeatedly, that you are doing this because you're worried for them and want to better understand what is going on and that you love them unconditionally. Addiction and addictive behaviors are so cloaked in shame and secrecy that you really can't say that enough! Avoid getting sidetracked into a prosecutorial mode where you end up trying to prove to them they have an issue.
I asked Chrissy, Workit’s Director of Counseling, for advice about talking to a loved one with a pain pill addiction. She said: “Always come across as their advocate, you can see they are in pain and know that is not a happy way to live. Even when taking them as directed, you can become physically dependent on pain pills. Not only that but addiction messes with brain chemistry. State that you care about them and want them to be the bright person you know them to be and you want to help them find that light again.”
Step 5: Take care of yourself.
As we say at Workit, “Loved ones need love too!” and it’s very true. Think of it this way: addiction is like a tornado that wreaks havoc on the not just the addict but everyone around it as well! Make sure you pay due attention to your own basics of self-care (eat, rest, move, play), and get emotional support. A little leaning on the shoulders of others who have been there goes a long way! Groups like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon have helped many and now offer some online meetings if you’re shy about going in person.
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Cassandra McIntosh is the Head of Content at Workit Health. She brings a unique mix of expertise drawn from her background in counseling psychology, socio-organizational psychology and consumer insights.