Many who struggle with substance use disorders do so for years on end and there is often a gradual descent into more difficult life circumstances as the illness progresses. For these individuals, as life gets harder due to their substance use, consequences begin to pile on top of one another. These compounding issues are often what helps bring people into recovery, and the hope is that they reach out for help before reaching such results as incarceration or severe psychiatric effects. There are those, however, who are able to better function with or manage substance use disorder and avoid some of the lesser effects that plague the lives of many. Without these, they may not ask for help until more harmful results occur.
A Double Life
For many, substance use happens behind closed doors before they go about living what appears to be a reasonably healthy life to everyone else. Many use substances in a way that is difficult for others to notice, either reducing intake at certain times or switching substances dependent on their surroundings. Such people may function efficiently at work and play a vital role in their family structure; they are or appear to be quite capable in most areas of life. The concern for these individuals is that they are often behind the wheels of vehicles, caring for children, or they may work in jobs where even minor impairment could lead to serious consequences. It can be difficult for these individuals to admit that they are struggling or are willing to risk revealing to those they’re close to that they have been using substances. They may even feel like the admission will cost them the things they hold dear, however, in this desire to hold onto both sides of their life there is a much greater risk for these fears to become a reality.
A gift of the changing stigma surrounding substance use is that some are able to seek treatment and recovery from substance use disorders at younger ages than ever before. In fact, young people are one of the fastest-growing groups in Alcoholics Anonymous. A.A. even states that over 10% of its members are under the age of 30. One might assume that these people started their substance use at a very young age. While that is true for some, it’s not uncommon for a younger person to have spent only a few years using substances. Some of those with substance use disorders that are college-age manage to condense the full experience of the illness into only a few years. Some head off to school with excellent prospects for the future, yet the environmental factors only aid in reaching serious repercussions at an accelerated rate. It is possible for the younger generation of those with a substance use disorder to move past the gradual decline that others experience, to more intense low points.
The struggle of someone who has experienced recovery and subsequently relapsed is that they have an awareness of how things “should” look. They have seen people around them recover, and they have experienced this themselves. Some feel shame and guilt about their relapse which may make it hard to admit that they are struggling and they may hesitate to reveal the truth even while supported by those around them. Others chase the persistent thought that with the new skills they have learned, they’ll be more capable of managing and stopping their substance use and move forward. Many of those who relapse have regained the things they lost while using substances, such as families or jobs. The fear of losing these again makes reaching out for help a second or even third time challenging.
How to Help
Many of those who love someone who may appear in one of these categories might wonder what they can do to help support them. It can be instinctive to want to take action that might aid them in seeking treatment, like an intervention or an ultimatum, in order to prevent negative consequences for them. However, as each situation is unique, seeking guidance and resources before approaching a loved one is needed. Each individual is brought to a place of recovery by their personal decision and the best thing a loved one can do is be there when they are ready.
Substance use disorder is a progressive illness. There is no way to know or predict how it will affect each individual, or what it might take for them to reach the point of seeking recovery. Each person must decide when enough harm or hardship has taken place themselves. Fortunately, there are a variety of programs that provide options for people from all walks of life, and treatment can help provide tools to rebuild. The best thing a loved one can do for someone who is struggling is to provide support and a safe space for them to reach out when they are ready.
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