According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 23.5 million people age 12 and over need treatment for a drug or alcohol problem. Of these, approximately 2.6 million people actually received treatment. With the epidemic of drug, alcohol and other addictive behaviors in this country, it’s likely that you know someone with a substance abuse problem.
It’s hard to be with someone you love who has a substance abuse problem when you don’t know what to say. This situation can be tricky whether your loved one recognizes his or her problem or not. For those who don’t recognize their issues, you’re faced with finding out how to get through to an addict. For others, you may fumble with how to talk to an addict in recovery without hurting their feelings or making a fool out of yourself.
Unless you’ve been in recovery yourself, it can be very hard to understand how to talk to an addict who needs (or is receiving) recovery assistance. With a little coaching, however, anyone can learn the do’s and don’ts of what to say to someone who has an addiction.
The Facts About Addiction and Recovery
Anyone would find it hard to talk about a subject they don’t know much about. If you’re not into a certain popular television show and everyone around you is talking about the latest episode, you’ll be at a loss for words – not because you’re a poor conversationalist or don’t care, but simply because you don’t have the facts.
The same goes for addiction and recovery. You find it hard to talk to someone about their addiction and recovery because you don’t know what they’re going through. It’s helpful to understand what addiction is and isn’t, and what going through recovery really means.
What Is Addiction?
First, let’s talk about the definition of addiction. Addiction is a disease caused by a complex set of genetic, family and psychological factors. It’s not a character flaw or a problem with will power. An addict can’t “just stop” abusing substances through sheer willpower without doing some kind of work to recover from the effects of addiction. If they can just stop and put down their substance, they aren’t addicts, they’re users. When users cross the line into addiction, they cannot just stop on their own. They need help.
The proof that addiction is actually a physical as well as psychological issue comes to us from comparing brain scans of addicted and non-addicted people. Imaging scans demonstrate changes in how the prefrontal lobes operate in the brains of addicts versus non-addicts. The cascade of brain chemicals associated with the reward system in the body also changes, creating the physical component of cravings and addictions.
Certainly, psychological factors play a role in addiction, but it’s not simply a mental health issue. Many people who do have underlying mental health issues self-medicate with substances. People with mood disorders are more likely to drink or take drugs like marijuana to self-soothe. Dual diagnosis, or a diagnosis of substance abuse and a second diagnosis of a mental health issue, is quite common.
Knowing that addiction is a disease just like cancer, diabetes, M.S. or another debilitating disease, can make it a little easier to talk to your addicted friend. What would you say to a friend who just found out they have breast cancer, or another friend who finds out they have diabetes? You might express sympathy and good wishes. You might offer to take care of things while your friend gets treatment, like walk their dog if they have to be in the hospital receiving treatment or recovering from surgery. Just like those friends, your friends in recovery also like to hear expressions of love and sympathy, as well as practical offers of things like meals so they have something nourishing to eat during recovery.
What Is Recovery Treatment Like?
It may also help to learn what recovery treatment is like. Recovery programs range from 12-step group meetings to special centers called rehab centers. Rehab may be in-patient, which means that you live there during your treatment, or outpatient, which means that you attend rehab sessions during the day but go home to your own residence at night.
Rehab isn’t like jail or a hospital. There may be medical treatment involved to help people withdraw from drugs or alcohol, but in general, a rehab center is set up more like a big group home crossed between a hotel and a dorm. Recovery isn’t about punishment, it’s about healing. You can’t get well in a place where you’re uncomfortable.
The same goes for withdrawal. Many people imagine “white knuckling” their way through withdrawal. That’s no longer the case in most recovery centers. Newer medications can help you through the worst withdrawal, and you are monitored constantly at many centers to make sure your health isn’t compromised. The goal is for you to recover from your illness, and rehab centers do all that they can to help.
What to Say to a Friend Leaving for Rehab
If you’ve just learned that a friend is leaving for rehab or addiction treatment, here’s a few lines you can use if you get tongue-tied:
- “I hope you get better soon.”
- “I’m thinking about you.”
- “I’d be glad to check your house/apartment for you while you’re gone.”
- “Please don’t worry about work. Just focus on getting well.”
- “I’ll be here when you get home.”
These positive messages let the other person know that you care, offer helpful sympathy without forcing advice, and let them know they’re still loved.
The list of what not to say is long, but you should take care to avoid comments like these nonetheless:
- “This seems like an awfully big step. Can’t you just quit on your own?” If they could, they would quit on their own. A diabetic can’t order the pancreas to produce insulin. An addict can’t order the brain to stop craving substances. It doesn’t work that way.
- “Hey, you’re just like — (insert name of family member, friend or celebrity who has publicly gone into rehab).” Each person is an individual. Nobody wants to hear they are ‘just like’ someone else. They aren’t. Their problems may be similar to someone else’s, but when they’re suffering from them, it all feels very personal.
What to Say When a Friend Returns
When your friend returns from rehab, welcome them back. Keep the door open for conversation about rehab, recovery or simply about life! Recovering addicts have a life outside of their recovery work. Maybe your friend wants to talk about their time in rehab, or maybe they just want to catch up on the news from your family. Let your friend guide the conversation.
Broaching the Subject: How to Talk to an Addict About Getting Help
All of this is fine for someone who knows they have a problem and are ready to go into rehab. But what about that coworker, friend or relative who is clearly suffering and needs help? How to talk to an addict about getting help is different than talking to someone who is leaving or returning from rehab.
How to talk to an addict about getting help depends on several factors. First, it’s best if you wait until that person is sober. Drugs and alcohol change how the brain processes information. It can be hard for someone to truly hear what you have to say when their mind is clouded with substances. Wait until the person is sober before broaching the subject.
You may want to wait until the day after some incident has happened to bring up the topic of addiction. For example, if the person went on an extreme drinking binge and they feel sorry for their behavior the next day, that’s a good time to bring up their behavior in the context of addiction and getting help. Emotionally, they are more receptive to what you have to say because they already feel badly about what they did. They are also sober now and clear-headed enough to understand your concern.
Keep the conversation focused on the following topics:
- Concern: Make sure that you speak to the addict from a place of care and concern, not blame or judgment. Let them know you love and care for them, and only want the best.
- Personal: Don’t make blanket accusations or bring up incidents from the past. Keep the subject focused on the person’s behavior and how it affected you. “When you didn’t show up for our date last night, I felt…” is a better statement than, “You’re always standing me up and I hate it!” Using “I —” statements as in “I felt” or “I thought” lets you keep ownership of the conversation and helps the other person understand how their addiction is affecting others.
- Connections: Make the connection for your friend between their substance abuse and its impact on the things they love. Perhaps they can no longer afford to participate in a hobby they love because all of their money is going to drugs or alcohol. These connections can help them see the bigger picture of what they are losing to their addiction.
If you’re uncomfortable broaching the subject alone, there are people and groups who can help you. Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and others may have a member willing to introduce your loved one to the program. Just such a meeting helped Bill W., founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, turn his life around when he was in the hospital as a chronic alcoholic. Many others have found that hearing stories of recovery from sober addicts helps them see their own story like nothing else.
Sober addicts have a special key that can unlock many minds still in denial. When they tell their own stories, active addicts often see themselves in them. They realize that this person, sober and healthy, has something they want and they know that if that person achieved it, they can, too. That’s one of the many reasons that support groups and recovery meetings work. The sharing is more than cathartic for the person speaking. It also helps others recognize their own patterns of behavior to create change.
Avoid the Bad News
Please don’t tell your friend or family member horror stories from people who tried to quit on their own. It’s not helpful to tell scary stories. It’s like women sharing their scary childbirth stories with pregnant friends — it can be terrifying for their friend. Share supportive, hopeful stories if you can, but avoid the negative tales.
Talking to a Coworker About Addiction
Coworkers, supervisors or other people at work may pose an especially challenging situation. You may wonder why your supervisor or human resources manager doesn’t confront a coworker with a substance abuse problem, but they may not have noticed the same things that you do. This is especially true if you work closely with someone or share an office. You may notice behavior changes that others don’t.
Workplace substance abuse isn’t just upsetting. It can also be dangerous. Impaired workers can cause injuries to themselves or to others. It’s important to seek help from your workplace to talk to someone you suspect is an addict.
- Take notes: First, make notes on where and when you observe behaviors that lead you to suspect substance abuse. Write down the day and time and what you observe. Don’t write down what people tell you happened, but only things that you have personally seen.
- Talk to your human resources manager: Your company’s human resources personnel have special training in how to handle these situations. They know what to do legally and morally to help individuals showing signs of an addiction. Bring your notes to the meeting, and do not discuss them with others.
- Do what your HR staff tells you to do: They will probably schedule a meeting with your coworker to investigate the claims. They should keep your involvement anonymous. They may provide your coworker with information on counseling, employee assistance programs or insurance coverage for rehab.
When a supervisor is showing signs of impairment, it can be even more uncomfortable. Follow the same steps as you would with a coworker.
The only exception to these steps is if you work in a place where lives are on the line and people are dependent on others for care. Places such as hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, medical offices, pharmacies, police or fire departments or other such workplaces call for immediate action. Speak with your supervisor if you notice someone at work who appears to be impaired. They may be sick, having a bad day or adjusting to a prescription medication — or they may be suffering from substance abuse. Report them, keep the patients or others in their care safe, and seek advice from your supervisor immediately.
Bring Helpful Information to Your Meeting
Talking to someone about their substance abuse problem is difficult. One way to make it easier is to bring information about possible treatment options to your meeting.
- You can find 12-step support group information online. The national Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous websites offer free information you can download and take with you. They also have meeting finders on their website to help you find a local support group meeting. Type in your zip code and the sites provide you with a list of meeting locations, dates and times. You can bring this information to your talk with someone you think is an addict, and offer to accompany them to their first meeting.
- Bookmark sites like 12 Keys, so that you can pull them up on your phone and show them to your friend. Your friend may be surprised at how nice places for rehab can be, or how much help is actually available. Show them the information on insurances accepted, travel and other resources. Make the call together if you can.
- Offer to go with them to a doctor for an evaluation if they aren’t convinced they really are an addict. Some people are fine with going to see their physician but may still balk at getting help for an addiction. They may agree to defer to their physician’s opinion.
What About an Intervention?
Television has made the subject of interventions quite popular. An intervention is a structured, confrontational meeting led by specially trained personnel. The person leading the intervention creates a group of family, friends and others close to the addict and coaches them on how to confront the loved one about their addiction.
After an intervention meeting, if the addict agrees to go into treatment, it’s essential that the group is willing and able to help the person leave immediately.
Interventions can be helpful, but they aren’t always necessary. Please speak with a professional such as a medical doctor, counselor or psychologist about finding someone to lead an intervention.
Care and Compassion Are Always Called For
The best advice for anyone wondering how to talk to an addict is to make sure you take a calm, loving and non-judgmental approach to your conversation. Although you may be hurt and worried, angry or harsh words never convinced anyone to get help. If someone isn’t ready to seek help, they’ll just tune you out.
When you understand that addiction is a disease, and that the person you love isn’t in control of how they’re acting, then you can have a rational conversation with them about your worries and concerns. You can help them help themselves by entering into a recovery program. It may be a difficult conversation to have, but it could be the one that saves their life.
12 Keys Rehab
12 Keys is a rehab center located along Florida’s beautiful coast. We offer a compassionate approach to substance abuse recovery that includes holistic treatment, traditional 12-step meetings and a method of helping people discover a new, healthy lifestyle.
At 12 Keys, people who wish to recover from drug or alcohol addiction can find a new way to live and be happy despite their addiction. Our comfortable treatment center offers privacy and a low client to staff ratio, so that there’s always someone to talk to. Many of our staff are former addicts themselves, so they understand what you’re going through and can offer compassionate support.
The 12 Keys model includes science, spirit, family and body. We use the latest scientific and medical treatments for drug and alcohol recovery while embracing 12-step recovery models that address the psychological and spiritual roots of addiction.
Family is an important part of your recovery. We work with both addicts and their families to help everyone understand the nature of addiction and how family support can help addicts stay sober once they complete their treatment at 12 Keys.
A healthy body is also essential for a healthy life. Many addicts neglect their health during the active stages of their addiction. We give you time to rest, delicious gourmet meals to nourish you, and plenty of activities to help you regain your strength. Because we are located near Florida’s waterfront, there are plenty of outdoor activities included in your stay — or just time to walk along the grounds.
During your stay, we create a unique plan of recovery that includes personal counseling, group meetings, 12-step work, exercise, relaxation and much more. Each person is an individual. There are no cookie-cutter treatment plans here. Because we have a low client to staff ratio, we can work individually with you and make sure you are getting the right treatment for your needs.
12 Keys is a great place to recover. If you or someone you love is seeking treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, please contact us. We are available 24/7 to help you.