It can be extremely challenging to be in a close relationship with an active addict. You know that your loved one is a good person — when they’re not drinking or using. When they are drinking or using, things get a little more complicated. It’s hard to know what to say to “get through” to your addicted loved ones. Here are a few things that are tempting to say to your addicted loved one and some alternative ways of approaching the conversation.
- If you loved me, you would stop using — This is a tough but also understandable one. As someone who has been on both sides of this equation, my sympathies are with anyone who feels as though they’re always #2 (or #3 or #4) to a loved one’s drug of choice. It’s difficult to understand when a loved one claims that you are important but continues to prioritize their drug of choice over you again and again.I didn’t really understand it until years later, when I was suffering from addiction myself. It was then that I experienced the true horror of addiction: how badly you want to stop, how much you wish you could stop causing the people you love pain, and how difficult it is to do that. There’s a saying among many of the sober people I know that “if loving someone could cure addiction, there would be no addicts in the world.”
So while saying, “if you loved me, you would stop using,” isn’t the most effective way of approaching an addicted loved one, there are things you can do. Sit down with them and explain that you are worried about their behavior. Try to refrain from accusations or judgment but be clear about your concern for the person’s well-being and how his or her behavior impacts you. Then, listen to what your loved one has to say — even if it’s defensive or you don’t agree with it. Try to stay calm and listen, even if what’s said makes you angry or upset. Beginning a dialogue can be an important first step in an addict realizing the impact of his or her addictive behavior.
- You’re just bored. If you had a (job/significant other/different friends) you wouldn’t use so much — There’s no doubt that when some people are unhappy or even bored, they’re more likely to use substances. It’s unlikely, however, that unhappiness is the sole reason a person becomes addicted to a substance. Many other factors including genetics, the type of substance, and the age a person started using all contribute in some way to a person becoming addicted. What is most important is that the person realizes they need help and begins to develop a plan for moving forward. Simply removing one of the contributing factors to an addiction isn’t a particularly useful strategy for recovery. What can help is identifying the contributing factors and working with treatment professionals.
- Grow up and/or it’s just a phase — Some people do “grow out” of abusing substances or abuse them for a short time before either stopping or moderating their use. Once someone has developed an addiction, however, it’s extremely challenging for the addicted person to simply “stop” being addicted. In addition to having a mental obsession with the substance to which they are addicted, the physical addiction is also quite dangerous. It’s important that people who are addicted are evaluated by a medical professional to determine the best course of action for treatment. Instead of telling the addict that they should grow up or move through it, ask them what you can do to help them move toward sobriety.
- Why can’t you just moderate? — This is perhaps the most common refrain that addicts hear, and for good reason. Most people are able to moderate their substance use fairly easily. If something comes easily to you, it’s natural to expect that it will come easily to other people. Moderation, however, is extremely difficult for an addict. Once a person has become addicted to a substance, even the smallest amount of that substance produces an almost unbearably intense craving. The brain tells the body that what’s needed is more and more of the substance. Imagine you’ve just walked several miles in very hot weather. You don’t have water with you, and at the end of the walk you are parched. Someone hands you a glass of water but tells you that you can only have two sips and then you have to give the glass back. Everything in your brain and body is likely telling you to drink the whole glass of water that your body is desperately craving. In my experience, that’s what trying to moderate drinking is like. Although water is necessary for survival and alcohol certainly isn’t, an actively addicted brain essentially sees the water and alcohol as one in the same: necessary for survival. Those messages can be challenged and overcome, but it’s not as simple as one might think.
That doesn’t mean a loved one has to watch silently as an addict abuses substances. It is important for an addict to recognize that their substance use isn’t moderation and is in fact destructive. Though it might seem obvious from an outside perspective that a loved one’s substance use isn’t “moderate,” addicts sometimes fool themselves into thinking it is. As always, it’s important to engage in the conversation in a calm, nonjudgmental way. Talking through the negative consequences of an addict’s substance use with them can begin the process of chipping away at their denial.