As common as addictions are, they’re still not a topic that many people are comfortable openly discussing. When an individual’s friend comes to them to talk about a spouse or child who’s living with a substance use disorder, it’s hard to know what to say. It can feel like there’s a delicate balance between being flippant and overstepping, and while there’s isn’t necessarily a “right” thing to say, there are definitely some wrong things to say.
Fortunately, an individual doesn’t need to be an addiction treatment expert to be a great friend and a strong source of support. Recognizing what addiction is and knowing how to provide reassurance and encouragement goes a long way in having tough conversations about living with someone with an addiction.
Addiction is a Medical Condition
Substance use disorders, most commonly referred to as addictions, are complex diseases that cause an overwhelming drive to use substances or participate in harmful behaviors, even in spite of serious negative consequences. Addiction affects the way the brain works, especially the parts of the brain that control things like memory, judgment, motivation, learning, and reward.
Like health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, lung cancer and heart disease, addiction is caused by a mix of genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle. Most medical associations, including the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the American Medical Association, define addiction as a disease. Just as physiological conditions become more serious and have bigger consequences if left untreated, untreated addictions become increasingly severe and even life-threatening.
As helpful as it is to understand what addiction is, it’s also important to understand what addiction is not. It’s not a weakness or a moral failing, and rehabilitation requires far more than willpower. It’s also not a criminal justice issue. It’s no respecter of persons; anyone can develop an addiction, regardless of gender, age, income, level of education or employment status.
Recognizing addiction as a medical condition that needs treatment and addressing it from that angle is a helpful guide in knowing how to talk to a drug addict in denial or a friend whose loved one has an addiction.
The Importance of Being Part of a Friend’s Social Support Network
Many people understand that if they need emotional support, turning to friends and family can help them cope and decide what to say to an addict that they love. Unfortunately, considerably less attention is given to teaching individuals how to be a part of that support network.
There are a couple of reasons that it’s hard to be part of a support system. First, it’s difficult to see a loved one go through hard times. Living with a spouse or child with an addiction is emotionally draining, frustrating, and confusing, and it requires constant vigilance and a thick skin. Watching a friend deal with the highs and lows that come from loving someone with an addiction can be heartbreaking, especially when there isn’t an easy fix.
Second, there’s an element of selfishness that makes it difficult to be part of a support system. Subconsciously, one reason that an individual doesn’t want their friend to suffer is that they don’t want to feel uncomfortable around them. If everything can’t actually be okay, then the next best thing is pretending that it is. While this is an entirely normal response, it’s not beneficial for anyone and therefore has to be overcome.
Being part of a supportive community means coming to terms with the fact that sometimes, everything isn’t okay. When a friend brings up an uncomfortable topic such as addiction, it’s important to recognize what they’re looking for. In all likelihood, they’re not looking for answers, empty platitudes, or even a solution; they simply need to share what they’re experiencing so they can process their own emotions and develop an action plan.
The good news is that an individual doesn’t have to be specially trained or even have firsthand experience with living with someone with an addiction to provide great support to a friend in need.
When an individual approaches their friend to talk about a loved one’s addiction, their friend’s tone speaks just as loudly as the words they say. Empathy is important, but meeting a friend’s heightened emotional state with even more emotion doesn’t help. Instead, it’s better to remain calm and be an anchor for the individual— someone who’s steady when life feels unsteady.
Imagine How the Individual Is Feeling
Before someone reaches out to their friend whose loved one has an addiction, it’s helpful for them to think from their friend’s perspective. In all likelihood, their life feels chaotic and uncertain, and they’re scared for the wellbeing of their loved one. While everyone in their life is discussing their children’s school plans or their spouses’ career goals or hobbies, they may feel isolated and grieve for what their loved one is missing out on. Imagining how they’re feeling can provide motivation to reach out when the impulse may be to convince oneself otherwise.
Don’t Be an Expert
Treating addiction requires help from an expert, but being there for a friend requires absolutely no formal training. While an individual may find it helpful to read up on addiction and make an effort to understand their friend’s unique situation, they should avoid trying to become an expert on the topic. In most cases, talking to someone who’s sure that they know the ins and outs of addiction is a surefire way to shut down the conversation for good. The goal is to be a good friend, not a guru. As long as an individual is willing to listen to their friend and provide emotional support, they’re doing what their friend needs.
Focus on the Now
When trying to engage with a friend who’s talking about their loved one’s addiction, it’s tempting to try to explore the “whys.” If someone’s child is facing addiction, for example, it may be easy to place blame on their parenting techniques and try to figure out where it all went wrong.
However, this is the last direction an individual should direct the conversation. No one wants an archeological dig into their past to try to pinpoint where they messed up or what they should have done differently. Instead, it’s important to focus on the present. If the friend discusses feelings of guilt or responsibility for their loved one’s addiction, try to redirect the conversation towards how they can care for themselves and their loved one in the present.
Look for Practical Ways to Help
Providing a listening ear is incredibly helpful, but sometimes, it also helps to look for practical ways to offer support. That may be cooking a meal, gifting tickets to an event, providing childcare, running a few errands, or helping them with a cleaning or organizing task that feels insurmountable.
Accept That There Are No Easy Answers
While it’s tempting to want to say and do just the right thing to show support and provide some direction, it’s important to accept that there are no easy answers. That doesn’t mean that an individual needs to stay silent if their friend voices a myth about addiction—(“she has to hit rock-bottom before she’ll be ready for treatment” or “it’s their fault that they developed an addiction”)—but they don’t need to have a response for everything.
Developing an Action Plan
While an individual may not have all the answers for a friend whose loved one is living with an addiction, they can play an important role in helping their friend come up with an action plan. This may mean setting boundaries, creating an environment that promotes sobriety, learning how to talk to an addict in denial, or getting in touch with experts who can provide professional help.
At FHE, we specialize in helping clients living with addictions to drugs and alcohol. Our admissions counselors are standing by, ready to provide information to help you or a loved one overcome addiction. For more information on our programs, call us today at (866) 733-9517.