If you have a loved one who struggles with addiction, it’s often hard to know what to say. Their behavior may seem totally irrational to you. If you’ve never struggled with addiction yourself, it’s almost impossible to understand why they act the way they do.
Perhaps the most frustrating part is that the irrationality of addiction makes it very hard for you to help them. You may have the best intentions but somehow always end up saying the wrong thing. The following are some things you should never say to a loved one with a substance use disorder.
Since one of the main characteristics of addiction is that you have tried to quit drinking or using drugs but you can’t, being told that you should just quit is especially frustrating. Often, people are aware that their substance use is causing them problems and they may even want to quit but they can’t seem to manage it or they’re afraid. Also, there is typically a lot of ambivalence toward quitting.
Often, people who haven’t been able to make a firm decision to quit–whatever that may entail–have some kind of deep ambivalence toward quitting because they feel like they get something important from drugs and alcohol, even if it costs them a lot in return. It’s important to understand this ambivalence, which means listening non-judgmentally rather than demanding answers.
Whether your loved one is in recovery or not, this is a terrible suggestion. This advice is often meant to be helpful, like “Just take it easy!” However, the typical pattern for someone with a substance use issue, especially alcohol is that once they start, they can’t stop.
“I’ll just have one or two drinks” is often the beginning of a very steep slope. Even if your loved one primarily has issues with drugs besides alcohol, drinking is often a trigger and it can impair judgment and foresight, leading to a greater risk of relapse.
It’s a common misconception that addiction is all about a lack of willpower or discipline. We all have some tendencies that we know are bad for us in excess, and most of the time, if we’re lucky, we can control those tendencies. We assume people who struggle with addiction just need to apply the same self-control. However, a substance use disorder is a whole different animal.
It’s like the difference between having a pet cat and a pet tiger. Addiction is often the result of multiple risk factors, including genetic predisposition, childhood abuse or neglect, trauma, and mental illness. Criticizing someone for lacking discipline only adds fuel to the fire.
Addictive behavior appears selfish, especially if you feel like you’re constantly being manipulated and exploited by your loved one. However, the problem is more complex than selfishness. There is a sense in which addiction makes you totally absorbed by your own problems but it’s more of a trap than anything.
For example, if you’re locked in a room with dangerous people, you’re going to be worried about what’s going on in the room, not what’s outside. Furthermore, addiction often causes structural changes in the brain, which causes you to focus all your attention on getting drugs and alcohol.
When you’re struggling with addiction, shame is a common problem but it may not be obvious because the usual way people deal with shame is to hide it. Shame is typically connected to the abuse or trauma that preceded the addiction or to the addiction itself. Heaping on more shame only makes things worse. Your loved one needs compassion instead.
The idea that you can only recover from addiction after hitting some theoretical rock bottom is one of the most persistent and counterproductive misconceptions about addiction. For many people rock bottom means death. If you encourage someone to keep drinking or using drugs until they’ve had enough, you’re not helping.
Pretty much everyone who enters treatment is not entirely sure they want to get sober; they’re usually just in a bad enough place that they’re willing to try something new. Instead of waiting for rock bottom, encourage your loved one to get help, try to leverage low moments, and consider hiring a specialist to help you organize an intervention.
You’ve no doubt experienced moments of exasperation when you feel like you’ll just have to accept that your loved one will always struggle with substance use and there’s nothing to be done about it. While this frustration is normal, it’s not a good thought to communicate to your loved one, because they probably feel the same way.
They probably don’t have the mental resources for optimism right now, so you’ll have to bear some of that load. Remember that people do recover from addiction, even after several relapses. You can’t know if your loved one might be one of them until they make a consistent effort to get sober and stay sober.
Although you should certainly encourage your loved one to accept help, you shouldn’t put the burden of seeking help entirely on them. They probably feel stuck. Even if they have some notion of where to seek help, it might feel entirely beyond their ability.
Furthermore, there are more than 14,000 addiction treatment programs in the US, and choosing the right one can feel overwhelming in the best of circumstances. People with substance use disorders frequently also have co-occurring mental health issues such as anxiety disorders and major depression, which can make the task of choosing a treatment program and making the proper arrangements seem completely impossible.
Instead of telling them to go get help, help them get help. Research programs and funding, and help them make arrangements for travel and taking care of their other responsibilities while they’re in treatment.
At Hired Power, we know that recovering from addiction is complicated and we’re here to help. We offer services that treatment centers typically don’t. These include interventions, sober transportation, case management, sober coaching, sober monitoring, and others. We help our clients and their families manage the whole recovery process. For more information, call us today at (714) 559-3919.
“I have worked with Hired Power extensively in collaboration with Clearview Treatment Programs’ individualized outpatient program. I am always impressed with their effectiveness and professionalism.”
“Thanks again for being there for us and guiding us through some rough waters. Your kindness and genuine concern deeply touched my soul and we are all grateful our paths crossed when they did. You are a truly gifted professional, keep on doing what you do so well.”
“I just want to thank Hired Power for the PRA. He was a perfect match and I can’t say enough…. He was intensely committed. This is the first time I have been clean in over 30 years. Thank you again.”
“I don’t look at you (Hired Power) as hiring a service, I look at you as saving my life.” (referring to his ability to stay sober after returning home).