Communication: Those in Recovery, and Those Who Aren’t
Help communicating with, and about, those in recovery, as well as those who haven’t yet found help
As I’ve said before, I’m one of those people who reads advice columns. I like seeing what situations people find themselves in and the possible solutions advisers suggest. I love how the columnist is always so tactful, or how sometimes he or she pulls no punches in telling it like it is. Here’s some advice I found for talking about substance abuse in different situations.
For people with a family member who is in recovery, or one who is still using
In April, I came across a NY Times column that might be helpful for people with a substance abuser in their family if they don’t know how to talk about their loved one to others. Those of us familiar with addiction and recovery, or who’ve been dealing with a loved one in trouble with drinking or drugs for years, have usually worked it out at some point. (Especially if you’d had to educate others – even others in your family about how addiction is a disease and not a weakness or a moral failing.) But it’s an uncomfortable subject for some people because they don’t know what to say. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t talk about it—avoiding it only adds to the stigma that surrounds addiction.
Here’s the situation: A woman wrote to an advice columnist in the NY Times to say that she and her husband would be getting together with a couple they hadn’t seen in years. Since that time, both couples had sons, now in their 30’s. The writer’s son “has suffered from addiction for years and lives on the edge of poverty” because of the unfortunate choices he’s made.” To her credit, she didn’t say she and her husband were embarrassed. Instead, she asked how to discuss him without infringing on his privacy.
And to his credit, the columnist questioned whether the woman was being totally honest, or if she was really worried about how she and her husband would appear. And then he firmly told her that there’s no shame in suffering from addiction, and that her son’s addiction was no more his fault than any other illness he might contract. He told her not to beat around the bush and suggested that they say “Danny is struggling with addiction. We’re proud … [of how he’s fighting it.] But it’s a daily battle.”
And he tells her to be supportive, that addiction can be hell for families, but that their son needs their support. Give that advice columnist a gold star!
Communicating with those in recovery
Not only do families of addicts have a dilemma in knowing what to say about their family member, but people wanting to say the right thing to someone in recovery don’t always know what to say, so they say the wrong thing. (You may have heard that you shouldn’t say, when a person has just been through a breakup, for example, “It’s for the best.” You can be just as inappropriate—even if you don’t mean to—when talking to someone in recovery.)
A Huffington Post writer wrote about a Twitter chat with Phoenix House recovery center that included the worst things you can say to someone in recovery. The entire chat focuses on women, but women aren’t the only ones to hear thoughtless and unhelpful comments, like “I would never have guessed you have a problem with…..” or “There’s no way you were that bad.” And then the person in recovery may feel he or she has to explain the true facts about what the other person just said. I’d say that with every person they educate, they’re paying it forward.
Here’s a HuffPost article by a woman who lost her brother to drugs (a prescription drug overdose) and who admits she’s an alcoholic. She, too, had someone say inappropriate things to her.
And here’s a later one by her that’s my favorite. When her mother asked her what to say to the relatives who were asking where she was, she answers “Tell them I’m in rehab for alcohol abuse.”
For someone who doesn’t drink
Then there are people who simply don’t drink, or who don’t drink because they’re in recovery. If you are one of these people or have been out with one, you know how people in bars—and even clueless friends—can badger others to take a drink, or badger them about why they’re not drinking. Esquire magazine had a wonderful article in June about possible responses to inane questions or statements. Here’s a sample: [4. “I’m going to get you to drink.” No, you’re not, the same way I’m not going to get you not to drink. People get to make their own decisions, and trying to change mine on alcohol will be a failed endeavor.]
Ways to defuse negative conversations with a current user
This is another great HuffPost article. Written by a substance abuse counselor, it tells how to stop the “dance” with an addict and gives concrete things to say if they’re just want to engage you in the conversations you’ve had over and over with them.
For example, a family member suffering from addiction may say things like:
· “I can’t do anything right.”
· “I guess I’m just a bad person.”
· “You just want me to leave.”
With this article, you no longer have to say:
· Don’t be silly.”
· “That’s not what my intention was.”
· “Why would you think or say that?”
Instead, the counselor recommends saying things like:
· “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
· “Please don’t put words in my mouth.”
· “This must be difficult for you.”
· “That just won’t work for me.”
She explains why the addict says what he or she does, and suggests that your responses be kind but neutral so that you don’t get dragged into the same unproductive tug of war. Good advice for a common situation that anyone who’s dealt with addiction is more than familiar with.