5 Things People Say to Addicts (and What They Really Mean)
“Maybe you drank a little too much last night.”
What you really mean is I was completely mortified, embarrassed and humiliated in front of our friends last night.
“Maybe you should slow down a bit and take a little break from using.”
What you really mean is please stop!
“It’s OK, I’m sure you just had a hard day. That’s all.”
What you really mean is that every day seems like a hard day and everything is an excuse.
“No, the kids and I don’t fear you; no you weren’t too physical last night with me…”
What you really mean is you’re frightened by the addict’s behavior and scared to address it. You’re walking on eggshells and scared he or she will explode again.
“You were really funny last night.”
What you really mean is that there was nothing funny about how drunk, blacked-out and mean you were to me last night.
Wendy O’Connor, PsyD, a psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles, shared these scenarios and says that talking to someone you love who has an addiction problem “comes down to the relationship and intimacy and trust.” It is a hard thing to communicate honestly with a person who has a substance use problem. You hardly ever have a clear cut idea of how they will respond.
“I myself am the daughter of an alcoholic,” says O’Connor, “and my father didn’t have the tools to deal with my mother’s drinking. It was taboo and socially unacceptable to talk about it. And then there was the common walking-on-eggshells syndrome in the family. That caused a great deal of fear for me as it does with most people who have loved ones who drink or take drugs — the fear of rejection, of the addict raging, of the addict leaving the relationship. The fear that you will say something wrong and have the addicted person leave is very strong. When my mother was getting help, she actually said that her priorities were the bottle, my father, and the kids, in that order.”
How You Can Talk to the Addict
So, while it can be extremely difficult to talk to the person in your life with a drug problem, it is important that you do it for yourself and the relationship. Know that criticism usually doesn’t help. “When you criticize an addict, they feel defective and put up their defense mechanisms,” says Thomas Gagliano, MSW, CMAT, author of The Problem Was Me (Gentle Path Press, 2001).
“But if you tell them it hurts you to seem them in pain, they feel that you care about them. When speaking to an addict, do your best to say what you mean in a way to not criticize but to iterate your love and care for them. When they are sick and tired of being sick and tired, they may take direction and reach out for help. In the meantime, you need to do what’s best for you or they will take you down with them. Remember, the addiction comes before everything, even themselves.”
Here are some more important tips.
- Talk to your loved one when they are sober. “Early morning — unless the person has a bad hangover — seems to be the best time,” says O’Connor. Many addicts are at their most clear-headed first thing in the morning. Catch him when he first wakes up and before he gets that first hit of the day.
- Stay cool. It is easy to get upset when talking to someone who has been hurting you. People with addiction also have a way of pushing people’s buttons. Go into your discussion with a calm and clear head and be determined stay patient.
- “Use the ‘sandwich approach,’” says O’Connor. “First, say something nice, like, ‘You know I really love you.’ Then state the issue: ‘We are all concerned with your drug use,’ and then something caring again, such as ‘We are looking out for your well-being.’ That makes it easier to take.”
- Don’t judge. If you lecture, the person who is using won’t hear you. You have to be kind and offer insight into what the addiction is doing to you. Be honest without using judgment.
“A person with an addiction typically feels overwhelmed,” says O’Connor, “and it is hard for him to deal with the truth. But if you aren’t able to speak with him truthfully, you are in for years of discordance. Truth gives you the opportunity to at least say, ‘I tried’ instead of ‘I should have, I could have, I would have.’ If you come from a loving place, your loved one still may not hear it but at least you know you have done what you can.”
Choose a better life. Choose recovery.