Caring for a person with cancer may be one of the most difficult challenges you face in life. You may face feelings of stress, burnout, and overwhelm that you never dreamed possible. It’s important you learn to recognize and manage the warning signs of extreme stress–and it’s equally important you understand the importance of avoiding certain unhealthy coping mechanisms.
One of the most destructive coping methods? Substance abuse. In any situation, substance abuse can have life-long, devastating consequences for you and those around you. As a caregiver, it can be even more dangerous.
In your role, you’ll naturally have higher levels of stress, depression, fatigue, anger, anxiety, loneliness, and fear than those around you. It puts you at greater risk of physical and mental health problems, including substance abuse.
What Is Substance Abuse?
In plain terms, substance abuse is the overuse of alcohol, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, or even over-the-counter medications. But what does “overuse” mean, exactly? The line between normal use and abuse is often very blurry. It’s up to you to decide where the line is for yourself.
You may be abusing a substance if you feel like you’re losing control of your ability to stop using once you’ve started. Or, you may suspect you’ve developed a dependence on and/or craving for a substance. It’s possible you’ve started to need more and more of that substance to feel its effects and, if you stop using it, you feel terrible.
If you know or suspect you’re abusing a substance, prioritize getting professional help.
How to Avoid Substance Abuse as a Caregiver
One of your biggest tools against substance abuse is stress management–even stopping the problem before it starts. Our article on caregiver stress and management is a good place to begin. In short, you can take steps to prevent substance abuse by:
- Learning how to manage your stress and other feelings that come along with caregiving.
- Asking for help–professional or otherwise–when you need it.
- Taking some time for yourself to do things you enjoy.
- Finding positive ways to cope with big feelings to avoid burnout, like yoga, meditation, or breath work.
- Eating a good diet, regular exercise, and plenty of fluids.
- Prioritizing your physical and mental health by going to the doctor on a regular basis.
It’s Never Too Late to Address Substance Abuse
If you’re struggling with a dependency on alcohol, drugs, or medication, you can and should get help. You deserve it. It’s never too late to take your first step toward recovery. To get started:
- Admit the problem.
- Talk openly with your doctor.
- Call your local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) hotline or go to an AA meeting.
- Call the National Drug & Alcohol Treatment Hotline at 800-662-HELP.
How to Talk to Your Loved Ones About Substance Abuse
When you feel like you’re in a place to share your struggle with substance abuse with loved ones, being prepared can make it less scary. No matter what, remember that it takes great strength and bravery to be open about this sort of thing. Here are some ideas to get the conversation started:
- Be honest about how cancer caregiving is affecting you. Talk about your feelings and be specific, but try to avoid blaming the person you’re caring for.
- Express your concerns about how substance abuse is affecting you.
- Ask your loved ones to share how it’s affected them.
- Ask for help. Your family can help you find recovery care and support you on this journey.
Remember: You deserve love and compassion as you take steps to recover from addiction and substance abuse. Allow yourself to receive that from others, and don’t be afraid to extend it to yourself.
More Substance Abuse Resources
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- Narcotics Anonymous
- Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) – U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- Facts about Aging and Alcohol -NIH Senior Health
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism