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The information provided on the show is for general information purposes only. If you have a health problem, medical emergency, or a general health question, you should contact a physician or other qualified health care provider for consultation, diagnosis and/or treatment. Under no circumstances should you attempt self-diagnosis or treatment based on anything you have seen on the show.

One in five Canadians struggle with addiction and must deal with the stigma that continues to surround it. Dr. Eloise Ballou knows firsthand just how challenging addiction can be – not just for those battling it, but also for those around them. She’s spent her career in hospital emergency rooms and at Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital. She breaks down the realities of addiction below.

How to know if you’re someone who just really enjoys drinking or really enjoys gambling vs. being someone who has an addiction

Think of a set of scales: on one side you have the pleasure you gain from it, and on the other you have the pain that comes from it. Are the scales tipping one way or another? Does it cause more harm than good? At first, the scales may be very much tipped towards the positive, especially since addictive substances tend to make you feel good right away. But over time, they cause harm that can be less obvious than that immediate good feeling. This is why sometimes people don’t notice that they’ve tipped into addiction.

For example, when it comes to drinking, questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you find that you need to drink in order to have fun?
  • Do you end up drinking way more than you intended to?
  • Does the hangover mean you feel awful the next day?
  • Have you ever felt that you should drink less, but weren’t able to?
  • If you really step back and think about it, how are the scales tipped?

If you recognize yourself in this, or if it makes you think of someone you care about, I recommend talking to your doctor. There are lots of ways to get help.

Advice for caregivers

It’s very important to find a balance between wanting to help the person, while also letting the person take responsibility for their behaviour. Again, it’s all about balance. Are you working harder than they are at treating their addiction? Is it causing you more pain than the good you can provide through support and help?

Keeping this balance in mind, if you want to open a discussion with someone you think is struggling with an addiction, I recommend approaching them with curiosity and without any preconceived notions. If they feel that you’re not judging them, they’re more likely to be honest with you and with themselves about what’s driving their use.

You might feel angry at your loved one, and feel that they’re fighting you instead of their addiction. But if you want to help, you need to step back whenever you start to feel too much anger towards the person. You need to take some space to find balance again, to remember who the real target it. You’re both on the same side, and you’re both trying to fight the addiction. When it starts to feel like you’re fighting the person instead, it means you’ve tipping too far.

This is also why family and friends are often not the ideal people to help their loved ones with addictions. You can’t be truly impartial when it comes to your loved one. What you can do is offer them support when you can, to forgive what you can, and to give them the choice to seek out help when they’re ready.

What can caregivers do to care for their own mental health

  • Set clear limits. Decide what’s acceptable to you, and what isn’t. And stick to this. It’s like parenting—your loved one should know exactly where the line is, and what will happen if they cross it. And they will test it. You need to hold firmly, because their health depends on it. If you’re protecting your loved one from the consequences of their use, you aren’t actually helping them. You’re just allowing the behavior to continue. This is much easier than it sounds, and this is where having someone you can talk to can help reinforce the importance of setting these limits and holding firm. Support groups and counselling is especially important for caregivers.
  • Make time for yourself. Keep doing the things that you bring you pleasure and meaning. Don’t allow your life to shrink to only focus on your loved one and their addiction.
  • Take a look at your own substance use. Are you accidentally making it harder for your loved one by keeping alcohol in the house? Is it possible that your own use is triggering use in them?
  • Accept that you’ll feel anger and sometimes act in a way you aren’t proud of, and that this doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s totally normal. You can love someone and also hate them in a certain moment. Try to hold both ideas in mind at the same time, even though it’s hard. Try to direct the anger towards the addiction or the behavior, rather than the person. But accept that you can’t always do this, and that’s okay. Try to model compassion for yourself, and this will help show your loved one the importance of them also being patient with themselves.

Are relapses part of recovery?

Absolutely. Relapses happen, and they’re a very common part of the recovery process. People often feel disappointed when they relapse, and that feeling can make them think “what’s the point”, and then spiral into heavier substance use. A lot of this has to do with shame and guilt. Often, it helps to step back and recognize that you had a relapse, to try to understand why it happened, and most importantly to move forward. This is a chance to figure out what didn’t work, and change it for next time. You should be proud of every single day you reduce your use, or avoid a behaviour you know is problematic. You need to have compassion for yourself, while also holding onto the idea that you can do better, and try again. Tomorrow is another day.

Are there factors that protect against addiction in any way?

Although there are genetic vulnerabilities that can predispose you to addiction, the more important factors that protect you have to do with your environment and how you live your life. This includes a strong connection to family and friends, a sense of connection to your community, regular physical activity and a sense of purpose and meaning in your life. These are all things that we have control over to a certain extent, and we can improve.

It’s time we started talking openly about our mental health. Join the conversation on Bell Let’s Talk Day, January 30, and help end the stigma around mental illness. For every text message (not iMessage) sent and mobile or long-distance call made by Bell Canada, Bell Aliant and Bell MTS customers, Bell will donate five cents to Canadian mental health initiatives. The same goes for anyone sending a tweet using #BellLetsTalk, watching the Bell Let’s Talk Day video on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat, or using the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook frame or Snapchat filter. But talking about it is just the first step: Visit letstalk.bell.ca for more ways you can effect change and build awareness around mental health.