Recovery is big news these days. Celebrities, politicians and all kinds of notable people are “coming out” about their addiction. With over 25 million people in the United States dealing with alcohol and drug addiction, the odds are good that you know someone who’s sober, trying to get into recovery, or struggling with addiction. How can you be supportive? How should you treat someone who is in recovery or still in active addiction? As this issue becomes more of a hot topic, here’s a quick list of five things not to say to someone who’s addicted to a substance.
1. Can’t you just have one?
Offering an alcoholic a drink is like offering someone a glass of antifreeze. For someone who is addicted, “just one” drink is very rarely just one. One toke, one prescription pill, one line, one shot, or one hit is bad news for someone who’s addicted. Some people say that “One is too many, and a thousand is not enough.” Addicts rarely stop with just one, and introducing that substance into their bodies creates a powerful craving that leads to binges, blackouts, and big trouble. Then, the addict feels sick and ashamed, and powerless to stop using again. This is hard to understand for people who don’t have a problem with drugs and alcohol.
Instead of offering drinks or drugs to the person who’s addicted, you can help them feel included by providing non-alcoholic drinks at parties. Also, never pressure an alcoholic or addict to try a sip or taste of a substance. One drop is all it takes for some people—and sobriety, once given up, can be very hard to get back.
2. Why don’t you just quit, if it’s so bad for you?
One of the reasons the recovery community celebrates recovery is that it doesn’t come easily. Addicts and alcoholics often struggle for years with their active addiction. Getting sober, and staying that way, is a big deal—especially in a culture that loves to drink and get high. Can you imagine being the only sober person at a tailgate party, or in a bar on New Year’s Eve? What about a romantic evening, without a glass of wine or some cannabis? Sober people have to navigate daily life without drugs and alcohol.
Many people who are addicted to a substance know that they have a problem. Addicts are stuck between a rock and hard place: they have the awareness that drinking or using is unhealthy and has negative consequences for them, but a physical and psychological dependence makes it impossible to stop. “Just quit” is not helpful advice for an alcoholic or addict. Instead, if you’d like to help, talk to the person who’s addicted about the treatment options, situations or feelings that are triggering, and what their action plan is for when they feel like getting loaded.
3. You’re more fun when you’re high.
People with substance addiction, especially in the later stages of addiction and alcoholism, do not experience pleasure or relief when they are using their substance of choice. Alcoholics drink themselves into liver failure; heroin addicts collect abscesses and blow out their veins searching for a place to inject. People with substance addiction generally do not drink or get high because they like the sensation of being in an altered state—they’re using the substance because they are physically and psychologically dependent on it. It’s not fun for them anymore.
Telling someone with a substance addiction problem that they’re more fun when they’re high or drunk is very hurtful. It’s like telling them that, unless they’re making themselves physically ill and endangering their lives, they’re not fun to be around. “You’re a lot better in bed after a few drinks,” for example, sends the message that you don’t accept the person’s sobriety and that it’s more important for them to be fun than to be sober. This can hurt the person’s self-esteem and actually trigger a binge—and a blacked out or comatose person is way less fun than a sober one.
Now, people who are newly sober are sometimes very difficult to be around. You may miss the loosened up, silly, sexy version of the person you know; you may worry that you’ve lost your drinking buddy and can’t talk about deep issues anymore. With time, the friend or lover you knew and enjoyed will show up again. Being patient and tolerant while they get comfortable with living sober is key.
4. How do you know you’re an alcoholic? You seem normal to me.
People with addiction are everywhere. You probably know at least one, whether you realize it or not. Addiction and alcoholism occur in every community, family, and business. Despite what you may see in the media, not every alcoholic person drinks under a bridge, or is homeless. Not every heroin addict uses needles or buys their drugs on the street. Addiction is a very common mental illness that affects many people—people who are desperate to hide their problem from the world around them.
If someone confides in you that they have a problem with drugs or alcohol, it means that they trust you. They may be trying to ask for help. They may feel safe sharing this very personal information with you. Instead of telling them that they “seem normal,” listen to what they have to say. Ask how you can help. The person you know is the face of addiction—your neighbor, coworker, a friend from church, PTA member, or family member. In many ways, people with addiction to substances are normal. There’s only one abnormal thing about them: their inability to ingest alcohol or mind altering chemicals.
5. Don’t tell anyone you have a problem.
Secrecy, stigma, and shame are the number one killers of people with addiction. Although millions of people around the world are affected by addiction, a shockingly small percentage will seek help. (Very few people have access to treatment or medical aid for addiction, but that’s another story.) Treating people with substance addiction like they are “less than,” or like they are lepers is not helpful. In fact, it can worsen their sense of isolation and fear. Many addicts overdose and die because they are ashamed to admit that they need help. Many alcoholics drink away their lives, families, jobs, homes, and futures because they would rather die than tell anyone that they’re self-destructing. Reinforcing the shamefulness of addiction, instead of treating it like what it is—a mental illness—kills addicts.
Instead of shaming the person who’s dealing with substance addiction, ask how you can be supportive. If the topic of addiction comes up at the dinner table or at the water cooler, don’t say negative things about addicts. You can be an ally. The words “My friend’s getting sober,” or “You know addiction is an actual mental illness, right?” can really help educate people who have a narrow, negative mindset about substance addiction. People with substance addiction are better served when they’re not forced to hide.
As always, learning more and reaching out is the best way to educate yourself about substance abuse addiction and alcoholism. By being compassionate towards people who struggle with this mental illness, it’s possible to help them get sober and stay that way.