Finding the right words to say to someone you love who exhibits addictive behaviors can be challenging. Your loved one may become defensive as you voice your concerns or offer support and encouragement. Some people feel judged or blamed or like their character is under attack when a loved one tries to talk to them about drug or alcohol use. Being educated and prepared and speaking from a place of love and compassion will help you speak to your loved ones about their addictive behaviors.
Educate Yourself About Substance Use Disorders
Before you approach your loved one, do your homework. Learn more about substance use disorders (SUDs), what causes them, and what it is like to live with one. Read about what it is like to detox and become sober from substances, especially if you know the substances your loved one is using. Read about how to talk to someone you love about substance use. Learning all you can help you come from a place of empathy and understanding and will help you be able to speak to your loved one with greater insight and knowledge.
Gather information about treatment for SUDs. What kinds of options are available for your loved one? Find out about the length of treatment, cost of therapy, and what insurance covers. Are there programs available locally or somewhere they may have other family members to support them? The more information you have to offer your loved ones, the more questions you can answer for them when the time comes. Actively participating in the process is also a way to demonstrate how much you care about them.
Find an Appropriate Time and Place to Talk
Finding the right time and place to talk should not delay such a meaningful conversation, but finding the appropriate time to talk is crucial to being heard. Try to find the time when there will not be distractions, and you can have their undivided attention. Think of a place where they will feel comfortable, yet you will have the privacy to have a heart-to-heart conversation with them.
Some people need to hear concerns from multiple people to believe that they have a problem, while others prefer to have more intimate conversations with trusted loved ones. You will know your friend or family member the best. You may also wish to have a conversation with them and request others have similar conversations with them within a close time frame to follow up on what you have talked about. Follow your instincts about how best to approach the situation.
Start the Conversation With Love
Difficult conversations do not get any easier, but when you begin them with love, you create an atmosphere of warmth and faith to help them hear what you have to say. Express how you feel about them and be genuine in your feelings for them and your concern about their well-being.
Establish a non-judgmental rapport. Expressing your feelings for them and letting them know that you love them for who they are, no matter what they do, will help them understand your love for them. You do not need to be enabling; just let them know that you love them, no matter what.
Be Open and Honest
Be willing to be completely open and honest with them about any history of substance abuse that you or your family have. Share your experiences and knowledge about SUD to help them feel less isolated. They will know that you can relate to them better if you share your experiences and remain open and honest about them.
You also set a tone for the conversation when you are forthcoming. You create an atmosphere of trust and safety, letting them know that they can also share what they are experiencing and feeling with you.
Listen and Acknowledge Their Feelings
Talking to your loved one is not all about you voicing your concerns; it is every bit as important for you to listen. Ask them questions to help them share what they are experiencing and how they are feeling. Let them know that you have noticed a change in their behaviors and are concerned, and ask how you can help.
Even if what they say is the opposite of what you have noticed, allow them to speak and acknowledge what they say. They may not even know how they are genuinely feeling or why they act this way. Just allow them to talk and provide a listening ear. Let them know that you are available for them to talk to now and when they need to in the future. Establishing this relationship of trust can help create support for them if and when they are ready to get help.
Use Non-stigmatizing Language
There is so much stigma around drug and alcohol use. Stigma creates a lot of shame and guilt for those who have SUDs, and when you use stigmatizing language, you can make more shame and guilt for them. When you speak to your loved one, be sure to use respectful language that is humanizing rather than stigmatizing. Some examples include:
“Person with SUD” instead of “addict”
“Person in active use” instead of “junkie”
“Person with alcohol use disorder” instead of “alcoholic”
“Person in recovery” instead of “former addict”
Your language sends strong messages to others about how you view them. Common or stigmatizing language can leave them feeling judged, shamed, and lonely. This dynamic creates walls between you and barriers to relationships. When you use respectful and gracious language, you break down barriers and develop a sense of rapport and trust that helps build your relationship.
Continue the conversation and your relationship with love and compassion. Compassion is being willing to suffer together with others. When they are hurting, you hurt with them. You do not need to put yourself above them, nor do you need to allow them to walk all over you. Compassion is about taking their hand and walking with them through whatever is causing suffering.
Let them know that you care. You do not need to enable them, participate in their substance use, or condone their behaviors. You do not need to lend money or your car or aid them in their activities. Just let them know that you are there for them to listen and love them no matter what happens. Let them know that you noticed their suffering, took the time to research for them, and have the information they need to get help.
Offer Your Help and Support
Share with them the information that you have gathered. Ask if they understand what treatment options are available and how they can access them. Offer to help them do more research. Offer to help them choose a treatment facility, help them enroll, and give them a ride or whatever support they need. Do they need someone to take care of a pet? Do they need help talking to a spouse or other family members? Do they need someone to just sit with them while they make the call?
Find out what they need. Be a friend, be their cheerleader, be the person they are accountable to as they take each step toward getting help. Be that person they can call at any hour of the day who is willing to encourage them to get help. Be creative and offer to help in any way you can to support them in getting help for their substance use. Being willing to back up your concerns with actions will let them know that you truly care about them and want to see them succeed.
Use Continued Patience
If, at the end of your conversation, your loved one picks up the phone, goes to treatment, and never uses drugs or alcohol again, you might be some kind of magician. Most people who have a SUD are also in denial and have difficulty coming to terms with the fact that they need help, no matter how much you love them. Helping someone find the motivation to seek help for substance use takes patience. Unfortunately, many people wait until they are faced with severe problems related to their substance use before they seek help, and even then, it is often court-ordered.
Continue to remain patient. Continue to reach out to your friend or family member and let them know that you love them, you are there for them, and that you are willing to help them in any way possible. Continue to listen to them and develop a relationship built on trust, compassion, and non-judgment. Be ready to accept that your patience may have to last a lifetime. Their choices are theirs to make, no matter how painful it is for you to watch or how it affects you directly. By offering them love, compassion, and patience, you give them all you can. The rest is up to them.
Take Care of Yourself
Despite focusing on talking to your loved one, another key element is taking care of yourself. You cannot be there to listen or support them if you do not take care of yourself. Keep track of your mental and emotional health and reach out to others for support as needed. Loving someone actively doing things to harm themselves, such as using substances, can take its toll on you. Being a caregiver can be emotionally and mentally draining.
Be sure that you find a balance in your life of healthy relationships with others. Ensure that you are eating healthy, exercising, sleeping well, and taking time for self-care daily. These wholesome routines will help keep you mentally, physically, and emotionally well. They will set an excellent example for your loved ones to take care of themselves, too. Caring about someone enough to talk to them about their addictive behaviors is important, but you also need to remember to be an example of wellness yourself. Living by an example is the most convincing way to motivate someone else to change.
Patrick Slattery is the owner and operator of Real Recovery Sober Living, the largest provider of recovery residences in the state of Florida. The Real Recovery program has 380 male beds across seven locations in the greater Tampa Bay area. Since starting Real Recovery in 2016, Patrick has obtained his CRRA (Certified Recovery Residence Administrator), CRSS (Certified Recovery Support Specialist), CEI (Certified Event Interventionist) and his CRC (Certified Recovery Coach). Patrick has been in recovery himself since 2015 and was once a resident at one of the sober residences he now operates. His strong foundation in recovery informs his approach and passion for the work he does. Patrick’s philosophy with men in early sobriety comes down to instilling the principles of the 12 steps along with a “direct, concise, polite” attitude.