How to Talk to Someone Recovering from Addiction
It can be hard to know what to say when someone we care for is in crisis. It can feel safer to simply do nothing in order to avoid the messy feelings and uncomfortable communication many associate with difficult events in their lives. But what your loved one needs as they take their first steps toward recovery is your support, not your silence. These tips will help you show up for your family member or friend without adding to their burden or burning you out.
Talk less, listen more. This is one of the most helpful things you can do for someone in recovery, and the easiest to overlook. When we avoid difficult conversations with those closest to us we are often thinking of our own fears of inadequacy. “What if I say the wrong thing? What if I make things worse?” In reality, your loved one does not need you to do or say any one thing; there is no “perfect” thing to say. Just being available to listen to them talk about their own thoughts or experiences will go far in showing them how much you care.
Share comfort and confidence, not expectations. When you do talk with someone in recovery, refrain from giving advice, making judgments, or asking them to live up to your expectations for what you think their recovery should look like. Sharing a step-by-step action plan may make you feel better, but your loved one’s recovery is not about you. Instead, ask about their goals or expectations and support them in accomplishing these. By trusting your loved one’s assessment of their recovery, you are demonstrating your confidence in them and whatever path to recovery they have chosen.
Identify your own support system. You may not be the one who experienced the addiction first hand or in close proximity, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t affect you. Seek out your own support network to help you reflect and heal as your loved one pursues their recovery from addiction.
Try utilizing the “Ring Theory” of emotional support, a model published in the LA Times, by identifying people you are close to but are further from the crisis than you are. For example, if someone in your family is undergoing treatment for a person with substance use disorderion, try talking through the situation with a close friend instead of a family member. Because of their distance from the situation, your friend will be less emotionally strained, allowing them to be more objective and a better support for you.
Be patient. All paths to recovery take time, and each person’s recovery will look different. By listening to your friend or family member, expressing your support for them, and identifying a few people to help you take care of yourself, you will be a resource to your loved one throughout their recovery and beyond.