How you talk to a recovering addict determines what your relationship with them will be. You can either respect them, their journey and their understanding of their condition or risk positioning yourself as a judgmental presence they can’t confide in.
Knowing what not to say to an addict allows you to be conscious about your word choices and respect that they may understand themselves better than you can. You also need to respect the amount of work they have done on themselves in therapy and in other treatments along their recovery journey.
What Not to Say to a Recovering Addict
Here’s what not to say to a recovering addict in your life and why these common phrases can be hurtful or offensive.
“I can’t be associated with someone who does this.”
Shaming the person for their addiction is something to be avoided at all costs. Phrases that suggest you’re embarrassed by them, don’t want to be seen with them or look down on them are all ways to alienate your loved one.
If they feel like you’re judging them or trying to hide your relationship with them from others in your life, they may distance themselves from you. This means that if they need help and support, they’ll no longer feel comfortable coming to you, potentially pushing them further into their addiction.
Instead, approach the situation by acknowledging any positive steps they’ve taken. If they started drinking again but managed to stop for a week or two, consider this a step in the right direction and recognize their achievement. Don’t judge them for a relapse but say, “I’m proud of you for the progress you made in remaining sober for X days. Let’s talk about what we can do to get you back on that path.”
Present yourself as an ally who supports them and celebrates their sobriety milestones with them. Understand that a relapse is part of the process of recovery and doesn’t signify a lack of effort on their part.
“Why can’t you just admit you’re an addict?”
It’s common knowledge that admitting addiction is often the first step in seeking help. But people need to come to this realization on their own terms, in their own time, and aren’t likely to respond well to this judgmental phrase that labels them as such. The mental health world is moving away from terms like “addict” and “user,” which label a person as if their addiction is part of their identity.
Instead of forcing someone in your life to admit to you that they’re an addict, something they likely already know in their own mind, invite them to steer the conversation. If you’re trying to talk to them about returning to treatment, you can say, “Do you want to talk about your recent consumption or use of X substance?”
“If you don’t stop, I’m leaving you.”
When talking to a recovering addict or someone who’s yet to seek treatment for their substance abuse, avoid using threats like “I’m going to leave you” or “I’m going to break up with you.” These statements position you as having more power in the relationship than your loved one, which can be challenging for them, since they’re already not in control of their addiction.
Setting boundaries are important, and it very well may be the right step to walk away. If you’re in a relationship with someone who struggles with addiction and want to leave the relationship because of harm it’s causing you, you’re well within your rights to leave. However, when you use threatening language as a way of trying to get results from someone struggling with addiction, you may encourage them to hide their behavior rather than be open with you. It may look like your loved one is no longer using substances or drinking, but in reality, they’re hiding it from you so you don’t leave. This approach doesn’t help anyone and can further strain your relationship.
Addiction is a disease that a person lives with forever, even when they’re in recovery. If you want to stay and support them through it because the relationship is otherwise healthy, there’s no need to make empty threats of leaving. If you intend to leave because it’s the best option for you, communicate your decision to leave when you make that choice. Don’t threaten to leave in the future because of actions that are occurring in the present.
“I’m not talking to you.”
Cutting an addict off from yourself entirely can be harmful to the relationship and their well-being. It’s understandable to be angry about broken trust and need to cool off. But giving them the silent treatment isn’t likely to encourage them to stop. Instead, it removes their ability to seek support and talk to someone if they decide to get help.
Instead of telling them you’re not speaking to them as punishment for their choices, position yourself as support that’s available when they’re ready. You can say, “I know you’re not ready to talk about this now, but when you are or you want to seek treatment, I’m here to listen and help.” Removing yourself from a situation for your own well-being can be done amicably and in a way that lets them know you support them getting help if they want it.
“Come on, you don’t have a problem. Everyone has a drink sometimes.”
Normalizing someone’s addiction like this makes it so hard for them to want to admit they have a problem and seek help. It’s natural to downplay an issue and avoid confrontation, we all want to make our loved ones feel like there’s nothing wrong with them. Like they don’t have to be ashamed of anything. But if you normalize alcohol abuse and drug abuse, you are dealing with life-threatening addictions. It is better to be supportive than try to dismiss addiction as normal.
“Why can’t you just stop abusing drugs and alcohol?”
Addiction is something that is hard to understand if you don’t suffer from it. It is one part a condition where your body cannot function the way it used to without providing it a certain substance, another part a behavioral compulsion that cannot be reigned in. If you take that substance away, it will start going through withdrawal symptoms and your body will begin to detox. When you stop using drugs and alcohol, you should seek out a medically supervised alcohol detox program. It is dangerous, and indeed, can be life threatening with certain addictions, to go through detox without a certified expert on hand.
“You can’t possibly be addicted to drugs, you’re still so functional!”
This statement diminishes someone’s cry for help and excuses your friend from being concerned for their wellbeing by seeking help. Admitting that you have an addiction to drugs or alcohol is a really scary thing already. You tell your friend that they’re “too functional” to have a problem is counterproductive. Without much experience with addiction, you may believe there is a ‘rock-bottom’ they need to hit, and have a Hollywood-version in your mind of what it looks like. Everyone’s rock bottom is different and it need not put them at fatal risk. It is absolutely a myth that being an addict necessitates that you are a logistical mess. It is true that often the first part of an addict’s life to be affected by their struggle is their responsibilities and the everyday logistics of their everyday lives. But not everyone experiences addiction in the same way.
“Just exercise and you won’t feel so depressed”
‘Hitting the Gym’ is a wonderful tool for fighting depression and anxiety. The dopamine released in your brain from heavy exercise can echo the effects of drugs or alcohol. This is a wonderful way to deal with malaise or mild depression. It is even a great way to work on making your life a well-rounded healthy life. But exercise alone cannot cure addiction.
“What do you have to be so depressed about? Stop being so negative all the time.”
Telling an addict to stop being so negative is far from helpful. Almost every addict you’ll ever meet is wrestling with thoughts and feelings that are so much more complicated than a feeling or mantra you fake until you make through. It is obviously true that if you can have a positive outlook in life, your life can feel lighter. Maybe those decisions feel easier or maybe you just find it easier to make it by as an optimist. But do not assume your loved one is suffering from addiction due to a negative outlook. It’s so much more complicated than that.
“Your life is fine. You’re just feeling sorry for yourself!”
First of all, this is never a great way to approach someone who is depressed. Walking someone deeper into the whole of depression by convincing them that they are just feeling sorry for themselves can do a lot of harm. Addicts often suffer with shame. Indeed, that is often the emotion that they were dealing with when they first started looking to self medicate. Telling someone that they’re just feeling sorry for
“Why are you hurting me like this?”
Though their drug abuse and alcohol addiction may be hurting you, it is most likely that the addict in your life has no intention whatsoever of hurting you. People experiment with drugs and alcohol for many reasons but it is very unlikely that they started using to do anything but make themselves feel better for even a temporary amount of time. The damage done to relationships around them is collateral in their drug addiction. It can be valuable to show them this damage in a planned and controlled setting such as an intervention, but just as a verbal sling it is unlikely to turn their life around.
“I’ll never feel sorry for you until you take responsibility for yourself.”
The fact that your friend is talking to you about their addiction means they are working on taking responsibility for themselves. Admitting you have a problem is really hard. You know the mantra “admitting you have a problem is the first step” and it’s true. If that’s what they’re trying to do, don’t question it. Tell them you’re proud of them for taking responsibility for themselves. Tell them that you appreciate them feeling like they can talk with you about it. But don’t reject their first steps toward recovery by diminishing how difficult that step is.
“You can decide to stop anytime. You just refuse to do it.”
No. This is just completely untrue, and not at all fair or safe to say to an addict. There is a reason why people go to drug rehab centers, and alcohol treatment centers to go through detoxification and alcohol and drug rehabilitation treatment. It can be dangerous to do these things without being medically monitored by a licensed professional.
“If you really wanted to stop you could do it. You just don’t want to.”
Addiction is no respecter of will. Which is to say, people who are addicted cannot stop on command. Addiction is a physical condition. The body changes the way it responds without a substance. Sometimes a body will stop working altogether if you go cold turkey when you are trying to get help for your addiction.
Never encourage an addict to stop using drugs or alcohol without the help of a doctor or rehab clinician. Without the proper care and tools, withdrawal and detox can cause problems and wreak havoc on internal systems.
“If you tried harder you could get clean. You’re just not really committed to it.”
Do you know an addict that has been in and out of rehab and therapy? Don’t tell them it’s their own fault. I don’t know their situation, but I can guarantee it’s not for lack of wanting to be healthy. It is never the right choice to drag someone down as a strategy to get them to deal with their problems. When you tear down someone’s morale, they are substantially less likely to believe in their own ability to withstand treatment.
“You would never do this if you really loved me.”
This is one of the most hurtful things you can say to someone. It’s likely that the addict in your life is already filled to the brim or overflowing with shame, guilt, and self-hatred. Indeed, it is even likely that they know you feel this way. That they love you the best they can from the very complicated place, they are struggling from right now.
It’s hard to feel generous when someone’s addiction is affecting our lives for the negative, but try to maintain a sense of compassion and generosity. It’s important and good to have open and honest conversations with your loved one or friend who has an addiction to alcohol or drugs, but it needs to feel like a safe conversation. This kind of accusation will make it hard for them to hear you because they’ll be too busy beating upon themselves.
“You’re just so selfish. Don’t you ever think about the way this hurts everyone around you?”
This one hurts just reading it. Of course, they think about it. Every day. I guarantee they brood about and obsess about and are miserable thinking about the way their addiction is hurting or affecting other people’s lives.
The addict you know is taking the steps to talk to you about their struggle because they desperately want to take responsibility and work toward a sober life.
Knowing Is Just the Beginning
Support and assistance for someone living with addiction goes beyond knowing what not to say to an addict or what not to say to an alcoholic. Educate yourself about available treatment options for a loved one in your life with a substance abuse disorder.
At FHE Health, a team of experienced professionals is on call to make the recovery process work for you. A better life begins with a phone call.