It’s terribly frustrating having a loved one with a substance use disorder. Their behavior seems to make no sense. It may feel like all you can do is watch while your loved one’s life slowly falls apart. Their behavior may be directly hurting you as well, causing additional pain and frustration. You want to help your loved one, but it’s hard to know what to do. There’s a lot of inaccurate information about addiction floating around. If you act based on erroneous beliefs, your best intentions may go awry. Your goal should always be to help your loved one get help so he or she can recover. Here are some things you should never say to a loved one struggling with addiction.
“You’re not an addict.”
If someone tells you she has a problem with substance use, take her at her word. It’s extremely difficult to face up to a substance use problem. Often, the person with the substance use disorder is the last person to realize it. If someone gets to the point where she thinks she has a substance use problem, take her seriously.
“You don’t look like an addict.”
We have plenty of stereotypes of what someone with a substance use disorder looks like. Sometimes those are accurate, but more often, people are able to carry on normal lives despite excessive substance use–at least for a while. Someone with a substance use disorder may look like an ambitious student, a busy mom, a successful lawyer, or a retired teacher. People develop substance use problems for many different reasons and substance use affects everyone differently.
“Why can’t you just quit?”
Most people with substance use disorders would love to just quit. Many have tried to quit several times but couldn’t. The essence of addiction is that you keep doing something for reasons you can’t control and don’t fully understand. When you ask someone why he can’t just quit, he’s already asked himself that question many times and probably has no answer. Asking the question is only likely to make him feel more powerless.
“Why don’t you get help?”
Clearly, if you can’t quit on your own, you need to get help. However, getting help is not always easy, for a number of reasons. People fear being stigmatized, they may not have the resources to get help, they may not know whom to trust, or they may fear the recovery process. And while it may be obvious to you that your loved one would be better off sober, people with substance use disorders typically feel conflicted about quitting. Substance use may be the only way they know to cope with stress or emotional pain. They often imagine life without drugs and alcohol will be dull and not worth living. It may take a while to decide that, on balance, life will be much better without drugs and alcohol. A better question is usually, “How can I help?”
“You have to hit rock bottom before you can quit.”
The idea that you have to hit rock bottom before you can recover from addiction is one of those dangerous myths that won’t go away. In 2017, more than 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses and about 88,000 died from alcohol-related causes. For those people, rock bottom never came. The rock bottom myth is comforting in a way. It means you can’t do anything for someone until his life gets so bad that he decides to get treatment. However, he can make that decision at any time. Life doesn’t have to reach a certain low before treatment seems like a good idea. You just have to convince someone that substance use is damaging his health, his relationships, his career, his finances, and so on and that he’ll gain more from treatment than he’ll lose. Telling someone he has to hit rock bottom lets him off the hook too because you’re essentially telling him he doesn’t have to get treatment until he feels like it.
“You will always be like this.”
Having a loved one with a substance use disorder is terribly frustrating and it only seems to get worse. There may even be moments where you feel like things are turning around but then you’re just disappointed yet again. These disappointed hopes are perhaps the worst and it doesn’t take many of them before you start feeling like things will never get better. While it’s normal to feel like that, it’s not helpful to express it. You may express your fear of what will happen if someone doesn’t get help, but it’s essential to remain optimistic. People do recover from addiction and sustain recovery for a long time, often for the rest of their lives. However, it’s never easy. Some people relapse several times before recovery finally sticks. Assuming that someone with a substance use disorder will never get better just has no basis in reality.
“You should be ashamed of yourself.”
You should never tell someone with a substance use disorder she should be ashamed of herself or that you’re ashamed of her. She probably feels shame already and it only makes her substance use worse. Addiction is a disease that no one wants. You wouldn’t be ashamed of someone because she had cancer, so you shouldn’t be ashamed of someone with a substance use disorder.
“You’re so selfish.”
It’s easy to feel like someone with a substance use disorder is just being selfish. She may lie to you, borrow money, or steal from you to support her addiction. She may seem overly preoccupied with her own pain. However, that’s just part of what addiction does. It changes your priorities so you don’t care as much about others. However, considering how destructive addiction is in her own life, it’s strange to call addictive behavior selfish.
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