By Tammy Cate
It can be heartbreaking to watch someone you love struggle with addiction. It is only human nature to want to give advice. Unfortunately, even the best-intentioned words can do more harm than good to someone dealing with a drug problem.
To make matters even more precarious, people with an addiction can deal internally with a litany of angry emotions such as uncertainty about the problem. To avoid accidental harm, here are some sentences you shouldn’t say to addicts, as well as some “safe” feelings to offer instead.
Don’t say, “How can you let that happen?”
Numerous researchers have identified reasons why addiction is like a chronic disease or illness. The brain changes when someone is addicted. Addiction is not a problem of will or a lack of desire for change. It’s so easy to look at people who are making bad decisions and wonder why they don’t just stop.
Even if you don’t understand, blaming the person who is having problems can make things worse. Instead, offer reassurance that you know the person is not choosing what is happening. Perhaps you could say something like, “I know you never intended this to happen.” This statement could easily make the person more confident to seek help.
Don’t say, “You will never change”
“You will never change” agrees with “You will always be addicted”. These statements are often expressed in frustrating moments caused by repetitive behavior or perceived mistakes, such as after a relapse. As right as you may be to feel frustrated, using these statements can really be harmful.
People with drug problems can get better and live full lives. But those who achieve sobriety are more likely to succeed if they believe they can. When a loved one feels that they will never be able to sobriety, they will be immediately discouraged and defeated. If your loved one is relapsing, try saying, “Maybe you need to try something different” or, “You may need more help and support” instead.
Don’t say, “You have to bring your plot together”
Recovery from addiction can require a village of support. When you tell someone with a substance abuse problem to “bring it together” you are invalidating the fact that addiction is a profound problem that with a little willpower cannot easily be overcome. Addicts probably know full well that they need to change. If the person feels weak, it may lead them to use a substance.
Instead, ask your loved ones what you can do to offer support. Try to say:
How can I help you get to a better place?
What can I do to help you with changes?
I’m here to help you find what you need to restore
Don’t say “I know why you are addicted”
“Your parents caused this” or “You probably wouldn’t be like this if it weren’t for …” These are unfair assumptions. Addiction is incredibly complex. Layer by layer, social, psychological and biological factors can play a role. You may think you know enough about a loved one to point out where the problem began, but you probably only know part of a bigger story.
While your goal may be to offer support or help the person feel better, these statements can be counterproductive in nature. It makes it easier for people to stick with their circumstances with the thought of blaming someone or something. In recovery, addicts learn to take responsibility so that they realize that they have the power to make new decisions. Far better to passively recognize supposed contributing factors than just that – just factors. You could say something like, “You are a strong person and I’m here to help.”
Final words: A loved one’s addiction is not your responsibility for change
Ultimately, you cannot force change or take responsibility for someone else’s addiction or behavior. Pay attention to your words. When all is said and done, the person with the addiction must want to take steps toward sobriety. Sometimes the only thing you can do is have a supportive voice encouraging him or her to go in the right direction.
Tammy Cate is the founder and CEO of Transformations By The Gulf, a leading drug rehab facility. Cate is passionate about helping others live sober, fulfilling lives. She maintains a hands-on relationship with staff and local residents to ensure everyone can get a personalized experience.