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Behaviors Make Sense

Helping By Understanding

There is over 50 years of scientific research that has shown that kindness and compassion towards your loved one and yourself, is a proven strategy for helping in the fight against addiction.


People who use substances in an addictive manner do so because they get some immediate result from doing it. Maybe it's the only way they can sleep at night, or it takes their anxiety away temporarily. Maybe they have physical pain they're trying to manage and things have gotten out of control. Many people who use drugs and alcohol have experienced a traumatic event(s) or have had a traumatic childhood in some way. Then there are those that have undiagnosed and untreated mental illness and they're using substances to try and manage their symptoms.


Imagine for a second that you have Bipolar depression and PTSD and not knowing you have it but knowing you feel scared and hopeless all the time. You don't have healthcare, and you don't have adequate shelter - maybe you're homeless or live in a shelter. Drugs and or alcohol can take away the fear and confusion for a moment and you can feel peace, they can breathe! This makes complete sense to the addicted person in context but to the family this seems unbelievable. That's because they are looking at things from their perspective. I know how hard it might be to see things from your loved ones perspective because you are hurting so badly, but if you can step back and ask yourself why they might be doing the things they do, it can help with rebuilding or sustaining your relationship. This does not mean you condone the things they are doing! You can still be upset about the behavior but you can also try to understand why they are doing it.


A lot of people think they know what addiction is and how addicts behave. (ex. they all lie, they all manipulate, addiction is a choice, it's disease). But your family members decision to use substances makes sense to them in a very specific way. This also means that their reasons for changing and how they change are also different. Understanding this is crucial for the family to understand. There is no one-size-fits all recovery program out there because there is no one-size-fits all alcoholic or drug addict.. Here are some examples of different types of people and why they use. Do you think making the same recommendations to these different people would be effective?

  • “I’m a soldier with PTSD from fighting in Iraq…drives me crazy

  • “I’m a teen in a pretty crazy abusive house who is terrified and angry most of the time”

  • “I have ADHD and I’m desperate to get into college but I can’t study without a ton of Adderall”

  • “I’m a grieving 60 yr old who lost my husband last year, and I need to sleep”

  • “I’m a firefighter with chronic pain from work-related injuries and opiates get me through the day”

The truth is, all of these people are very different and it’s important to understand how their substance use choices “make sense” to them because understanding is one of the ways to start helping.

The last really important thing to understand is that change takes time. If you are hoping your loved one will change their relationship with substances, you need to keep in mind that you are asking them to give up something that “works” for them in a very specific way. While there is a negative downside to them using, which is why you want them to change, there is also an ongoing desire for them to go back to the thing they know still works. This does not mean they are in denial, it's just them wanting to go back to what makes sense to them.


If you can begin to understand that there is a very real reason your loved one is using - that makes sense to them, then this can increase your ability to have kindness and compassion towards them. Helping by understanding is a great step to family recovery. Heather






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