How to Treat an Addict: Respond as if the Addict is Your Beloved Mother

One of the things that amazes me about owning a person with substance use disorderion treatment center is that every day, I am approached by people who say they want their loved one to recover, but ask how they can get them better on the cheap. If your loved one was diagnosed with cancer, do you ask the doctor what to do to get them better or do you ask which treatments you can forego because you want to keep the bill down? Like cancer, addiction will kill if it is left untreated. Unlike cancer, most people don’t attempt to treat addiction in its earliest stages, but wait until the addict is on death’s door, when someone perceives that the addict might have “hit bottom,” and then sends the addict to treatment. Any doctor will tell you that treating illness in its last stages is more expensive and less successful than treating it early on. As a society, we have skewed expectations of how addiction works and how to successfully treat it.

If you want your loved one to recover from addiction, treat that person as if s/he is your beloved mother. If your mother was warm and caring, sacrificed for you, sat up nights when you were sick and helped you with your homework, you’d repay that kindness with everything you had. Here is what that means for a person with substance use disorder:

  1. Seek treatment early. There is ample evidence that early intervention and treatment in the addiction process is both cost-saving and effective. For example, we know that individuals given post-surgical opioid painkillers can develop addiction. If we carefully monitor these patients and intervene quickly if a person with substance use disorderive process seems to be starting, we can very often prevent addiction from developing. If you see someone who seems to be getting out of control with their drinking or drug use, that is the time to seek help. Once a person is living on the streets or frequently overdosing or has been cut off from friends and family or has contracted life-changing diseases like HIV or hepatitis, treatment is much more difficult and expensive.


  1. Find high quality care. Often, the expectation of friends and family members is that addiction recovery is a matter of want and will. If you want it bad enough, you’ll be able to get better with a little 12-step support. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But we know unequivocally that without additional treatment, 12 step programs have a success rate of less than 10%. Not every addict requires residential treatment, especially if you seek treatment early in the addiction process, but all addicts will need intensive psychological support and therapy to get at the underlying causes of addiction and find new tools for coping with stress and other problems. A good psychotherapist can assist a family in finding the right supportive care for a person with substance use disorder. High quality care is likely to include many supportive services from psychotherapy to a host of complementary medical practices. If a person with substance use disorder has progressed and is severely hooked, long-term residential care will likely be necessary for success.


  1. Don’t give up hope. If the first round of cancer treatment doesn’t work, you don’t throw in the towel and write your loved one off. Sometimes addiction treatment doesn’t take on the first round either. A lot of the time, the addict will start to feel better and get his/her life on track, and will stop doing the therapies that make that success possible. They will leave treatment after 20 or 30 days when they feel physically better. That’s like failing to take your whole course of antibiotics. Relapse happens. The important thing about relapse is to make it as short as possible. We want it to be a teachable moment. Many times, when individuals at our treatment facility leave too soon and relapse, they check back in immediately and finish the course of treatment. This can actually be a positive experience because it helps the addict take the recovery process seriously and actively engage in both treatment and aftercare. If your loved one relapses, don’t lose hope. Help them get right back into the recovery process again without delay.


It is a myth that addicts must find some kind of bottom before they seek treatment. In my experience, a person with substance use disorder’s “bottom” is very often somewhere past dead. Instead, treat the addict in your life like a beloved mother. Get him/her into care early, remain optimistic and supportive, and get them the best quality care you can. Your own heart will thank you for doing what you can to save another’s life.