How to help a cocaine addict

You can help a cocaine addict by addressing the problem head on. Here, we review how to identify and encourage treatment of cocaine addiction for a loved one. Then, we invite your questions at the end.

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Reviewed by: Dr. Dili Gonzalez, M.D.

ARTICLE OVERVIEW: It takes a lot of time, energy, and willingness to begin to understand cocaine addiction and what an addict goes through. Whether you need help with cocaine addiction for yourself or for a loved one, the key to successful treatments for cocaine addiction is to have a combination between psychosocial support, medical assistance, and a good aftercare plan. We review what you can do to help an addict get the treatment s/he needs. And then we invite your questions about helping a cocaine addict at the end.

Table of Contents:

What Addiction Really Is

Cocaine is one of the most addictive drugs on the illicit market. This is due to the way in which it affects the brain of the user.

When the body intakes cocaine, usually through the nose, it’s immediately transferred to the reward pathway of our brains, known as the mesolimbic dopamine system. There are numerous areas of life which reinforce this stimuli, such as food and sex. Furthermore, this stimuli is also responsible for emotions and motivations.

When the mesolimbic dopamine system isn’t on drugs, it naturally produces dopamine through a neuron which binds to dopamine receptors. When you intake cocaine, the normal communication between neurons and dopamine receptors is fluctuated. Cocaine produces a dopamine of its own and attaches itself to these dopamine transporters in your brain. Int turn, this causes your brain’s natural dopamine production to give way for cocaine’s.

With this overload of dopamine in the reward system, the brain naturally feels good. In a study done on animals¹, it was discovered that exposure to cocaine over a period of time causes neuroadaptation. In other words, the animal’s brains had adapted to the drug’s chemical structure and perceived it to be “normal”.

This is ultimately what addiction is. The body and brain changes their natural flow which can affect both for a long period of time – even after the individual has quit. With this, a person’s behavior will also change. Unlike the stereotype, drug addiction isn’t a choice. No one chooses to get addicted to drugs. Rather, they choose to get high and, in turn, their body will naturally need more in order to feel this initial high. The more a person takes, the more their body adapts. And overtime, this tolerance leads into an addiction.

Dependence or Addiction?

The first thing you can do to address addiction with someone that you love is to understand the difference between drug dependence and addiction. Cocaine addiction does not necessarily overlap with physical dependence to cocaine. Addiction triggers strong cravings and loss of control over cocaine use, despite the negative consequences. And physical dependence is best described as the body’s need for cocaine to perform normally. When a cocaine dependent person does not have cocaine, withdrawal symptoms occurs.

However, a cocaine addict can be addicted to cocaine without being dependent on it. The definition of an addiction is someone who can’t stop using despite it causing negative consequences on their life. So, how can you tell the difference? There are a few questions to ask your loved one as a means of discovering whether or not they are addicted:

  • Have you ever tried to quit cocaine without having success?
  • Do you find yourself craving to use cocaine?
  • Are your responsibilities (i.e. school, work, family) at risk due to your cocaine use?
  • Have you continued to use cocaine despite it causing problems on your relationship (i.e. significant other, family, friends)?
  • Do you find yourself in risky behavior due to your cocaine use?
  • Do you spend a large amount of time thinking about, obtaining, and/or using cocaine?

Answering yes to any of the above questions is a sign of addiction rather than dependence.

Still, dependence and addiction can occur simultaneously for cocaine addicts. The bottom line is that in order to address cocaine addiction, you need to be ready to treat both physical needs of the body as well as psychological urges of the mind. And the first phase of cocaine addiction treatment is generally detox.

Helping Address Denial

It’s quite common for someone to feel a sense of shame due to their drug addiction. Through some perspectives, an addiction is a failure of self-control and responsibility. People who struggle with addiction feel this perspective and handle it through denial.

As a loved one, handling denial can be difficult. Namely due to the fact that you might not entirely understand how addiction works yourself. The first step in addressing this problem is by informing yourself of what addiction is. Preferably, through professional guidance, such as a licensed clinical psychologist or counselor who has experience with addiction. By informing yourself of how addiction is affecting your loved one you can teach yourself how to:

  • Comprehend addiction as a brain disorder.
  • Open discussions about treatment at the right time.
  • Remain safe around a person struggling with addiction.
  • Set boundaries.
  • Understand addiction as a family issue.

Still, as mentioned, cocaine is one of the most addictive drugs out there. Due to this, denial will play a key role in your loved one’s life as their brain and body has adapted to the drug to a large extent. It’s important to understand that you’re stepping onto fragile ice when handling a cocaine addiction. Many people who struggle with it often find they have mental health issues they aren’t entirely aware of. Therefore, attempting to break denial could bring on emotional devastation if handled improperly. In order to assure you reach to your loved one with the support and optimism you wish to bring, you’ll need to take measures which will guarantee a change in their perspective.

Intervention Basics

Often, interventions are one of the most efficient ways to get your concern across to a loved one. The reason for this is it forces them to admit to their addiction without having to face consequence. Many people struggling with addiction will find they won’t openly admit to their disease unless it has led them to a point of despair through an incident or accident related to the addiction. As a loved one, it’s understandable you want to avoid this at all costs.

Planning an intervention can be difficult as you need the right direction. You need to know who are the proper people to have in attendance, the communication methods you plan on using, and the preparation for consequences if things don’t go as you hope. The best way to reach a successful intervention is through a professional interventionists (such as Family First Intervention’s services). These professionals will give you exactly the advice you need on how to operate the intervention and aim it towards success – getting your loved one into recovery.

Interventions shouldn’t be a criticism circle. They should be an opening of emotions which reach out to the loved one. Emotions which affect the loved one more than their cocaine habits. It’s important to bring up critical areas (i.e. if the loved one’s cocaine abuse has negatively affected family or friends), however, make sure you keep your heart in the right place and offer condolence.

Help During Detox

Detoxification is the process during which cocaine leaves the body, including its metabolites. During this period, a cocaine addict can expect to experience withdrawal symptoms, especially extreme fatigue and continued cravings for cocaine. The psychological urge for more cocaine is repetitive and is often accompanied by depressed mood, agitation, restlessness, vivid and scaring dreams.

In fact, cocaine detox is not an easy process to facilitate. Medical supervision is highly recommended to minimize risk of relapse. General physicians, family doctors are medical professionals address the acute withdrawal symptoms as they occur. But the absence of the biochemical dopamine in the brain can cause discomfort and it will take time before the body returns to feeling “normal” again.

Keep in mind that detox is only the first step of cocaine addiction treatment. Detox is an acute period and should be followed by evaluation, stabilization and then entry into an addiction treatment program. Aftercare plans are especially important during cocaine addiction treatment, because chances for relapse are always high if cocaine addicts are not monitored for a certain period of time after they finish detox.

Help During Treatment

Detox is important for ridding the body of cocaine’s chemical structure. Psychotherapies are just as vital as they rid the brain of thoughts of cocaine. This is done through practices designed to adjust the prior abuser back into their day-to-day functioning without the conception of drugs. To teach them how to handle emotions and behaviors while attempting to reduce cravings.

People who struggle with a cocaine addiction often have much difficulty when entering treatment. Even though the body has rid itself of cocaine’s chemical structure, it can’t be forgotten how much cocaine affects the brain. The process of replacing cocaine’s dopamine with natural dopamine can take a lot of time. The general time for cocaine treatment is anywhere from 3-6 months, yet, some find themselves in it for a year or more.

People who have used cocaine for a long period of time may experience post acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) – a constellation period of symptoms. For cocaine, these symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Cravings
  • Depression
  • Mood swing

As a loved one, it’s vital you show support for your loved one throughout the longevity of their treatment process. If your loved one is facing PAWS, this could last for years. Your best course of action is to be present at family therapies and always lend a helping hand when things get too difficult. And they will get too difficult… but that doesn’t mean your loved one can’t beat addiction!

How Many People Struggle?

It’s estimated around 1.5 million people in the United States above the age of 12 abuse cocaine at least once a month (this includes crack). That’s around 0.6% of the entire population. In terms of age group, adults between 18-25 are the most likely to abuse cocaine and men are twice as likely to as women.

Luckily, cocaine use amongst high schoolers and adolescents has declined in the last 15 years and is, in fact, at its lowest since Monitoring the Future began its surveys, around 2.6% in 2014.

With this information, we know that cocaine use is still a problem within America and there are plenty who continue to abuse it. However, the amount of people abusing it now in comparison to the 1980’s and 1990’s has dropped significantly leaving us with optimism for the future.

Statistic References:

National Institute on Drug Abuse:

Referrals to Help (Where to Find Help)

Who to contact to begin the process of cocaine addiction treatment? Cocaine addiction treatment is not a simple thing to organize. You need to be well prepared and informed about all the possibilities out there within the frame of your budget. Following are some recommendations when planning for cocaine addiction treatment.

  • Talk to your family doctor or physician to get the best references for addiction treatment center in your area.
  • Research all treatment facilities in your area as well as the requirements they have for future patients
  • Get contacts and recommendations for the .best clinical psychologists to offer psychotherapy and consider visiting sessions with the whole family.
  • Read online about the variety of cocaine addiction treatments and all of their pros and cons and decide which combination will suit your loved one best.
  • Identify all support groups you or a loved one may have access to.
  • Go through the local governmental websites to check for any updates on the addiction treatment vouchers.

How to Support a Friend

1. Be informed about addiction treatment. During the course of cocaine addiction treatment, addicts usually:

  • are medically monitored and given medications when needed
  • attend individual, group and family therapy
  • attend support group meetings, such as Cocaine Anonymous
  • are invited to participate in sober recreational activities
  • are offered educational sessions about the nature of cocaine addiction
  • make a plan for relapse prevention

2. Offer support, but know that you can only do so much. Cocaine addiction treatment include elements of psychological support, psychotherapy, and/or behavioral therapies. While psycho-social support can come both from the family and friends of the cocaine addict, psychotherapy is essential to any drug addiction treatment. This is the part of treatment that you cannot facilitate; it’s up to the individual to address dysfunction in the mind and dig deeply into negative patterns. Psychotherapists use individual and group sessions to get to the root cause for cocaine use (often triggered by trauma).

3. Know that interventions might show limited results. Interventions are one of the most popularly practiced methods that family and friends use to address cocaine addiction. The final goal of an intervention is for a cocaine addict to accept admission to an addiction treatment program. However, unless an addict is internally motivated to change, interventions may be perceived as group bullying sessions.

Your Questions

Still have questions about how to help a cocaine addict get the treatment s/he needs? Make sure you post your questions or comments in the comments section at the bottom of the page. Or, if you have any advice to give for people trying to help a cocaine addict, we’d also love to to hear for you. We hope to respond quickly with a personal answer.


National Institute of Drug Abuse

National Library of Medicine

¹ Schmidt HD, Pierce RC. Cocaine-induced neuroadaptations in glutamate transmission: potential therapeutic targets for craving and addiction. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2010;1187:35-75. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05144.x.

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
Medical Reviewers
Dr. Dili Gonzalez, M.D. is a general surgeon practicing women's focused medici...

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a licensed medical professional.

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