Recovering from a drug or alcohol use disorder is deeply personal, but it also requires support. It can be hard for friends and family to know what words to use, what questions to ask and how best to address people who are working their way out of addiction.
"In the beginning, a lot of my friends didn't take me seriously because I had tried 'the sober thing' before and couldn't make it stick," said Jon Paul Crimi, a top sobriety coach based in Los Angeles. "The people who said they just wanted me to be happy and to be the best version of myself helped give me the strength and support I needed at the time."
The Huffington Post consulted with Crimi and three other people in different stages of recovery to learn about their interactions with loved ones. Jeremy Manne, admissions director at the adolescent recovery center Paradigm Malibu, contributed to the list, as did two Los Angeles professionals -- a 31-year-old who works in the fine arts and a 32-year-old lawyer. In keeping with the practice of anonymity in the world of recovery, these last two chose not to give their full names.
Below are suggestions of what to say -- and what to avoid -- when talking with someone about addiction and recovery:
1. Do not ask: “How long have you been sober?”
This is a tricky question for many people in recovery -- and it can come across as invasive even if you have the best of intentions. Relapse with drug and alcohol use is extremely common, and some people in recovery struggle with issues of shame and self-worth when it comes to talking about relapsing. It is important to focus on one day at a time, even if someone is only one day sober.
Instead try: “How is it going?”
This question sounds very generic, but that’s sort of the point. It can be hard for people in recovery to talk about it, especially in the beginning. So it is nice to use a non-judgmental and non-intrusive question. Also, this question lets the person in recovery decide how much to share or how many details to go into. Let them steer the conversation and you follow, rather than opening with something so direct. Remove the pressure. Better to start the conversation slow.
2. Do not ask: “When can you stop going to meetings?”
Being in recovery is a life-long process. Instead of focusing on an end date or a “cure,” it is best to offer non-judgmental support. Try to look at the tools one uses in recovery (like 12-step programs) as something positive -- and not as a negative outcome or punishment for their addiction.
Instead try: “You’re fortunate you have found a place to talk about your problems.”
Reminding those in recovery that they have things to be thankful about in their life can help cultivate gratitude and also gently remind them that you support the things they are doing to get healthy. Whether this is rehab, therapy or a 12-step program, encourage steps in the right direction.
3. Do not say: "I know how you feel."
Unless you have dealt with addiction personally, you do not and cannot understand how people in recovery feel. Saying “I know how you feel” can actually end up minimizing the experiences and feelings of those in recovery.
Instead try: "I can't imagine what you are going through -- but I am here for you and will help you get healthy in any way I can."
You don’t need to be an alcoholic or an addict to offer support or make a difference in someone’s recovery. This could be anything from going to meetings, helping them tell friends and family about their recovery, checking in on them regularly or making lots of plans together.
4. Do not ask: “Are you sure you're an alcoholic/addict?”
It doesn't help to challenge the person in recovery. It's not necessary to try and poke holes in their admission that they have a problem. Accept it as fact.
Instead try: "Can I come to a meeting with you so that I can learn more about what you’re going through?”
Going to a meeting with a friend or family member in recovery can serve as a deeply meaningful gesture of support -- but it can also be an eye-opening experience for the visitor. Listening to people in recovery share their personal stories, struggles or victories at a meeting will help give you context and information about addiction.
5. Do not say: “I didn't think you had a problem” or “I had no idea!”
That was usually the point -- people with addiction are pros at hiding it. Saying that you had no idea makes it about you instead of focusing on them. It requires strength and bravery to tell people about being an addict. Focus on that.
Instead try: “I am proud of you.”
This may feel a little uncomfortable, especially if you were unaware of the addiction, but these simple words can go a very long way. It's important to reinforce how difficult it is to stay sober and it can make people in recovery stop and think that the effort they’re making is worthwhile.
6. Do not ask: “Can't you just stop?" or “Can’t you have just one?”
If they have trusted you enough to tell you about their recovery, take their word for it. People who can limit themselves to just one drink or just one beer don't usually end up needing to be sober.
Instead try: "You deserve to be happy, healthy and to have a full life."
Focus on what is positive about their shift in behavior and outlook. Many people in recovery struggle with feelings of shame and low self-esteem. Help remind them of the big picture: happiness and health are the ultimate goal.
7. Do not ask: “So you can never get high or drink again?”
This question can be anxiety-provoking for anyone. Recovery often is not about just the drinking or using. Someone who is trying to be sober is often trying to work out deeper emotional issues and is attempting to undue years of habitual behavior. When you reduce recovery to just abstinence, it simplifies what is really a much more complex issue.
Instead try: "You are strong -- I know you can do this."
It is a tough road for many and the more often you can tell people that they are strong and that they can get through this day to day, the better off they will be.
8. Do not say: "Joe's in recovery too!"
Talking to someone in recovery should always come with the caveat that it’s usually a private thing -- so whatever you say, don’t yell it. Always try to have the conversation in a semi-private place so that they don’t need to worry about people overhearing.
One person might be fine telling you his or her detailed story of addiction. Others may not be comfortable telling you a single thing about it. Some people may be okay with questions, while others are not. Always try to remember that recovery is personal and private.
Instead try: "You're not alone."
Roughly one in 12 Americans struggle with addiction -- which means that millions of friends and family members are impacted by it, too. Helping to remind people in recovery that there is a huge community of people around them going through the same thing can help reduce feelings of isolation. Not only can you be there for them, but there are resources available to help provide information and support.
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