Whether you’re breaking news to family and friends about your addiction, or you’re wanting to pull a loved one aside to address concerns about their drug problem, a heartfelt and nonconfrontational approach tends to be best.
How to Come Out to Your Family About Addiction
You know you have a substance use disorder, and you know you need help. That’s a huge first step, because being aware that there is a problem — as opposed to being in denial — means it’ll be easier to seek help and accept it.
It can feel daunting when admitting you have a problem to the family.
If you’ve already started attending 12-step meetings or are planning to go to rehab (or have already gone), you’ve taken some major strides toward recovery. If you’re still in the very early stages of seeking or starting sobriety, understand that addiction is a form of mental illness. Like depression or bipolar disorder, addiction never completely goes away. Rather, it’s something that’s managed.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers advice on disclosing that you have a mental illness. Not everyone understands mental illness. NAMI admits that not everyone may show full support.
For people worried about the types of responses they’ll receive, the organization suggests making a list of pros and cons. Sometimes this type of list can solidify one’s resolve to open up and share. NAMI advises that there are better times to talk about the addiction. Ideally, the discussions should occur when:
- You are feeling well
- Participants and you are feeling ready
- They serve a purpose
If you are not well, address the most supportive person in your family or social circle.
NAMI also warns that not everyone may handle the news well. Typically, after someone discloses that they have a mental illness (or here, specifically, a substance use disorder), you can expect one of three responses:
- The other person is comfortable and the relationship stays the same.
- The other person is uncomfortable with the news and ends contact.
- The other person says they’re fine with things, but they fade from your life.
It may sting to lose the encouragement of someone whom you cared for and believed cared for you, but it’s better to focus on those who choose to help you — either by driving you to meetings or simply lending an ear, as support can take many forms.
The people who stick by the real, struggling you will do more for your recovery.
Help for Drug Addiction for a Family Member
On the flip side, it can be just as challenging trying to figure out how to approach a family member with a drug problem.
“You can’t talk your loved one into getting sober,” advises Robin Barnett EdD LCSW, author of Addict in the House: A No-Nonsense Family Guide Through Addiction and Recovery. “But you can start building a healthier relationship, whether she accepts it or not.”
Barnett says that communicating your concerns with someone who has a substance use disorder may be difficult and should be approached with caution. Placing blame, pleading, demanding, threatening, judging, or berating tend to carve deeper divides between people, even though those kinds of statements are rooted in hope (of recovery) as much as they are driven by logic, anger, and shame.
Because they focus on the behavior rather than the addiction, statements such as, “Can’t you see what you’re doing to yourself?” won’t necessarily work on a person with a drug dependency. That kind of argument focuses on the symptoms, not the disease.
Liken it to treating Lyme disease. Yes, you have Lyme disease’s characteristic rash and flu-like symptoms, but antibiotics target the bacterial infection that brought on the Lyme. Treating the infection may end the disease as well as chasing off the chills that result.
When approaching a loved one with an addiction, Barnett advises being honest, but avoid venting. It’s acceptable to ask them to consider seeking help, but don’t ask them to stop using. Mention specific types of assistance, such as attending a nearby rehab center or a talking with a recovering addict you know. Making statements is fine, but badgering the person with endless questions or hurling accusations won’t be likely to help.
Listening and acknowledging progress are good, but be careful with praise. A statement such as “You made my day” because someone went to a meeting sends the message that your happiness hinges on the behavior of the addicted loved one.
As for the best time to talk, don’t wait too long. If your loved one isn’t under the influence or potentially violent, it might be time to discuss the problem.
How to Deal with a Family Member on Drugs
To better inform yourself and your loved ones, the website of the American Society of Addiction Medicine contains information about addiction specialists. If you’re looking into rehab centers, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has resources and answers to frequently asked questions on its website
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has tips for addiction specialists on how to boost motivation for people with substance use disorders (SUDs), tips that family members and loved ones can also use.
Motivation is vital. “Counselors can support clients’ movement toward positive changes in their substance use by identifying and enhancing motivation that already exists,” SAMHSA advises.
Showing empathy rather than authority or power can better motivate change. Also, avoid the me-against-you dynamic. An addicted person may fight change, which is normal. Don’t be confrontational. Aim for a more neutral tone.
Find a quiet and private time to talk. Too many people around may distract, embarrass, or anger a person with a substance use disorder.
Sometimes all you can do is let them know that you’re concerned and that you’re there to help when they’re ready.