It can be difficult to know what to say when a friend or relative is going through treatment for a drug or alcohol problem. You want to encourage and cheer them on, but sometimes it can feel like a verbal and emotional minefield where it’s all too easy to step your foot in and inadvertently make things worse. But it doesn’t need to be this way. Here are five things NOT to say when your loved one is in recovery—and some helpful things you could say instead.
It might seem helpful to form expectations based on other people’s experiences with similar treatments. In reality, recovery is such a personal, individual process that these kinds of comparisons really aren’t that helpful. These statements could also put undue pressure on your loved one to live up to someone else’s experience, and he may feel that he is “failing” by not recovering in the same way or on the same time frame.
Instead, try asking about his own experiences in therapy. Questions such as, “How are you finding it?” or “Which aspects are most helpful?” are far more open approaches and allow your loved one to understand the recovery process as his own unique journey.
Tough love may seem like the best approach when your loved one has been battling addiction for a long time, but this approach is actually quite disadvantageous. As difficult as it is, it can help to accept that addictions are tough and your loved one may slip up sometimes. She’s already taken the difficult first step of seeking help, and chastising her for mistakes will only make matters worse—she’s likely already beating herself up over it without you taking a swing at her, too. Instead, remind her that you want to support her and you understand that recovery is really difficult. Ask her to open up about what she’s struggling with, or ask her to suggest specific ways you can help her through it.
If your friend or relative seems to be making good progress in treatment, you’ll understandably want to support and encourage him to continue. Be wary, however, of ramping up the pressure or expecting too much from him too soon. Just like anyone else, people struggling with addictions may appear to be fine, but under the surface they’re often struggling more than they’re willing to admit. In such circumstances, saying “you seem fine” or “you seem better” could actually make your friend or relative feel pressured to keep up appearances. Try to stick to open questions: “How are you getting on?” or “How do you feel?” These questions can give your loved one much more space to be honest about how he’s coping—both the good bits and the bad.
This may seem like an obvious one, but once your friend or relative has admitted she has a problem and is seeking help for it, don’t try to coax her into having “just one” of whatever she’s addicted to. This might mean you have to adapt some of the social activities you used to enjoy together. Rather than suggesting a night at a bar, try a night at the movies, or ask what other activity she’d enjoy. Of course, it may not be possible to avoid all social situations where alcohol or drugs are being consumed, so in those scenarios be extra conscious of how she might be feeling. “Are you ok?” or “Would you like to go for a walk?” can let her know you’re there for her and offer a break from a potentially difficult situation.
Addiction isn’t like a headache or a broken leg—there’s no easy fix or cure. It’s an ongoing process of challenging and changing emotional responses and behavior. Recognize that there’s no fixed end point to recovery and your loved one will have to go on working at it long after the initial treatment process is finished. As his friend or relative, make it clear that you’re with him for the long haul, too, and ask him for advice on how best to support him after his treatment comes to an end. Make sure he knows how proud you are of his progress, and ask him to talk you through any coping strategies he has learned so you can know how to offer help if he needs it.
Above all, ensure that you listen more than you speak, and allow your loved one to open up to you on his own terms. This may not always happen immediately, so be careful not to push him too hard—even if he’s not ready to talk yet, just knowing that you care and want to help will be a big comfort.
Written by Sarah Graham
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