How To Talk To Someone With Addiction

It can be incredibly frustrating to try and talk to someone about their addictive behaviors and the impact it’s having on their life and relationships. Often you’ll be met with defensiveness, manipulation, and deflections.
The first thing you need to know in order to make headway is that substance use disorder (SUD) is not caused by a person’s circumstances. The progressive nature of SUD creates this illusion. Initially, the use seems like a reasonable response to a life situation. This is one of those slowly dawning awarenesses, at first it looks like their behavior is a stress reaction to a relationship breakup, work disappointment or other life stressor. But upon closer inspection, it’s evident that the person has been using substances to manage their stress for many years. In fact, most people with SUD report their use began in their teenage years and because of this many developmental opportunities were missed.

While the rest of us navigated the stressors of life without substances we were afforded the opportunity to develop tools for living, tools that allowed us to build resilience, character and the capacity to be uncomfortable. But the person with substance use disorder repeatedly turned to substances to soothe those same stressors which reinforced their need to use substances to cope.

It’s easy to be misled because the person with SUD is often convinced that their addictive behaviors are caused by their life circumstances. So the first thing that needs to happen in order to speak effectively to the person with SUD is for you to shift your perspective. Look back over the person’s life and you’ll see a pattern emerge. A pattern of substance use in response to life’s challenges. It’s a profound and empowering shift in awareness when you’re able to see that the problems are actually coming from the person themself. No longer are they a victim, unlucky or powerless. Now that the problem has been identified change can begin. What an amazing moment of empowerment for everyone!

Because the person with SUD has a neurobiological illness they will have great difficulty seeing themselves with clarity. This is why so many people report feeling incredibly frustrated and/or giving up on the person with SUD. It’s so tricky to convince the ‘broken’ brain that the problem is coming from SUD and not external circumstances.

This is where you come in….

Unfortunately, love and support alone won’t cure an addiction. Take a moment to review how long you’ve been providing love and support to the person with SUD and notice how your efforts have not resulted in improvement. Likely your efforts have caused you to suffer as well. Because SUD is a chronic condition, it will consistently get worse, sometimes slower, sometimes faster depending on the substances being used.

As a family member, it’s essential to understand the dynamics of the family system and the ways that some of the responses to the trauma of addiction allow the illness to progress. Sometimes subtly and sometimes profoundly the entire family system is impacted by SUD and requires support, education, and healing to move forward together. Your instincts to comfort and help your loved one are beautiful and a natural response when someone is suffering however we see many family members diminished physically, emotionally, and spiritually as they struggle with patterned responses to active addiction.

the problem is coming from SUD and not external circumstances

Set yourself up for a successful conversation by never getting into a position where you’re trying to prove to the person with SUD that they are dependent on drugs and alcohol. This creates a power struggle and distraction from the problem. Simply state, repeatedly, your experience of their behavior and how it impacts you, your hope for their future and your willingness to do whatever is necessary to support their recovery and your unwillingness to do anything that supports their SUD. It goes without saying that this conversation needs to happen when the person is not under the influence.

Something simple and heartfelt like “I love you and it breaks my heart to see you destroying your life” is very effective in breaking through denial and opening up communication. “I hope you’ll choose life. I understand that ultimately you choose how you live but I need you to know that I can no longer be part of this destruction. It’s too painful for me.” “You have a treatable illness. Millions of people have gotten into recovery.” If they push back with manipulative statements like “you don’t love me.” or “if you loved me you would…”. Let them know that this is what real love looks like, it makes difficult decisions, takes a leadership position and sets healthy boundaries. Restate your willingness to do anything to support their recovery and nothing to support their addiction. This is not an ultimatum or manipulation technique, it’s a simple fact.

Family members can be powerful motivators of change. In order to develop the resilience to hold to your integrity and boundaries, in the midst of the crisis of active addiction, participation in a support network is critical. By embracing your own healing first, you’ll naturally disengage from the enabling system of active addiction. When recovery behaviors are incorporated into the family system you’ll be able to invite your loved one into the support of a resilient, recovery-oriented family system. As the system changes a new normal is introduced that has the potential to break generational patterns of substance use disorder.

As family members, you can take a leadership position and let your loved one know that there are an array of solutions from free peer groups, to intensive outpatient programs, to residential treatment, all designed specifically for the problem they have.

Here you’ll need to do your own work to gain support and process the greatest fear many families face… losing your loved one to addiction. By gaining awareness about what you can and can not control you’ll be able to focus on the choices that empower you to live your best life while modeling recovery-oriented behaviors for your loved one. Family members that embrace their own healing have the ability to differentiate the authentic voice of their loved one from the voice of addiction.

At Sana Lake Recovery Center we spend a significant amount of time working with families to enable them to speak to their loved ones in an effective manner. Introducing recovery into the family system has profound effects and while it may feel counterintuitive to embrace your healing first, it’s truly the way to make significant changes.

We recognize that addiction has a profoundly negative impact on systems and that healing those systems is the most powerful way to affect change. Introducing recovery principles to your family creates significant, lasting change. We’ve seen remarkable results when families embrace their own personal journey. Connecting with others having similar experiences fractures the isolation commonly experienced in families living with active substance use disorder.

“Families First” is a strategic approach to addiction recovery, one that has been researched and proven to significantly impact positive outcomes. Incremental adjustments and adaptations within the family system lead to profound psychological, emotional, and spiritual losses. The family living in active addiction organizes around the crisis, rather than their mutual values. These coping strategies play a part in keeping the cycle of addiction going and parallel the progression of substance use disorder or process addiction.

Facilitated by our family program director Ashley Murry LCSW, this group builds connections that fracture the isolation commonly experienced in families living with active substance use disorder.