When a Loved One Fears Treatment, Take a Different Approach

Persuasion is a tricky pursuit.

You’ve tried it, no doubt. Nudging a friend to join you in your new hobby, convincing your parents to offer you a little more independence or begging your toddler to put on his pants — for the love!

And, if you’re like most of us, your efforts go something like this: The harder you try, the harder your target resists. When things go off script and your powers of persuasion actually work, you’re satisfied, sure, but mostly surprised.

For the person hoping to see a loved one enter treatment, the stakes — and the stress — can be much, much higher.

Let’s take a look at why someone who’s addicted to drugs or alcohol might be opposed to treatment in the first place and what you can do to help them take that crucial first step. (Hint: Persuasion won’t play much of a role.)

Why Recovery Sometimes Frightens People Who Need It

Long are the lists of things we, as humans, know we should do but often don’t: eat better, exercise more, go to sleep sooner … we could go on. And while it may pain you greatly to hear that the person you care for doesn’t want to get help, keeping the perspectives of all mankind in mind may help.

Consider the healthy habit you should adopt. Why haven’t you? Ponder this question as you work to understand your loved one’s rehab resistance.

Sobriety coach Holly Glen Whitaker shares the logic behind the fear of treatment for people struggling with addiction. The reasons she gives can be divided into three distinct categories:

  1. What will people think, and how will they treat me?
  2. How will I fare during recovery and in sobriety?
  3. Who will I become without drugs or alcohol?1

As a reasonable person not facing rehab, you may experience a strong reaction to these fears:

  • Who cares what anyone else thinks?
  • How will you fare if you don’t enter treatment?
  • Your life can only go up from here!

Return for a moment to your own struggles. Remember your reasons for doing what you shouldn’t do instead of what you should. Recognize that you’re not also dealing with the chemical changes that take place in the brain of a person addicted to drugs or alcohol — changes that make positive progress exceedingly difficult.

Let empathy lead the way as you imagine how recovery might threaten your loved one’s past, present and future identity. Michael got sober in 2010 and offers this encouragement:

If someone in your family is affected by addiction, try to understand why they do what they do, but love them anyway. It’s the love that changes a person’s life. Speak the language of the heart.

Listen to the Story of a Person Who’s Been There

Sometimes as we work to relate to the fears and pain of our loved one, it helps to detach for a moment and listen to the story of someone we don’t know. Stepping outside of your daily battle can bring perspective, understanding, and — best of all — ideas!

Jennifer Angier, veteran addictions counselor and former CEO of Talbott Recovery, shares her own story of resisting treatment with these same goals in mind.

Sober for me was always the issue. It didn’t matter what the consequences were of drinking and using — they weren’t as bad as not drinking and using, she says. Getting sober was extremely challenging not just because of the physical dependence on the drugs, but because I didn’t know how to live in my own skin.
That’s a tough thing for you and I to understand — that a person could fear sobriety more than they fear addiction. But it’s with this understanding that we can begin to help our loved ones bridge the gap from fear to faith.
And faith — in oneself and in recovery — takes time: It was more terrifying to me that it wouldn’t work to be sober, Angier explains. For my first couple of years sober, I was so afraid. I was so afraid all of the time that I was going to mess it up, that I wasn’t going to be able to stay sober.
Angier credits the men and women who encouraged her during the tough moments as the reason she finally began to desire sobriety and see it as a viable, long-term option for her life.

Hear more of Jennifer’s incredible story and how it’s influenced the way she meets patients where they are on Recovery Unscripted.

The Antidote to Fear Starts With an Open Ear

When you take in Angier’s advice on Recovery Unscripted, you’ll hear a call toward understanding. An encouragement to ask questions and listen with the goal of learning.

As she explains, There’s this feeling that so many patients have of not being listened to … of you don’t even know who I am. All along, they’re just asking for somebody to listen to what they’re struggling with. And also, it lights them up. For so many of our patients, they’ve lost a connection to what fuels them.
Your task in such a challenging situation is to listen with compassion.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh helps us grasp the value of this practice. Fear, he says, comes from holding incorrect perceptions. Chances are your loved one views himself, recovery or the world around him through the wrong lens.

But before you can begin to address his perceptions, you must first listen — and deeply. Here’s how Thich Nhat Hanh describes the goal: “You listen with only one purpose: help him or her to empty his heart.”

This approach allows you to disagree and say nothing, to be confused and say nothing, to hope and long and pray and still say nothing. Later, when the time feels right, express your concerns.2

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction but fear is getting in the way of sobriety, call our toll-free helpline at 678-251-3189 to learn more about your treatment options. At Talbott, we work to address both addiction and any underlying mental health issues to bring healing and wholeness to all our patients.

By: Stephanie Thomas

1 Whitaker, Holly Glen. “11 Fears You Have About Sobriety, Dispelled.” Hip Sobriety, September 7, 2014.
2 Super Soul Sunday. “Thich Nhat Hanh on Compassionate Listening.” OWN, May 6, 2012.

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