When a person is struggling with addiction, there are many difficult barriers that they face. However, there is one easy way that all members of our society can make recovering from addiction slightly easier. The words we choose when discussing addiction, describing people who struggle with substance abuse, or engaging with people use substances can be either empathetic and supportive or hurtful and judgmental.
For a long time, substance abuse has been viewed as a moral failing or a shameful habit that indicates the person who uses is not worthy of compassion. Research has shown, however, that PTSD is more strongly correlated with addiction than obesity is with diabetes. Up to 59 percent of young people with PTSD subsequently develop substance abuse problems.
Essentially, this means people experience awful things that they are not mentally prepared to handle. To cope with their trauma, they may turn to addictive substances. Therefore, more likely than not, the people who are being judged for having substance abuse problems are just grown-up versions of hurt children who may have never received treatment for their issues.
Don’t Even Say It
In addition to the assumption that addiction is the result of a moral failing, there are other problematic things people often hear when struggling with addiction:
- “You’re doing it wrong.” – Just because one person was successful in quitting cold turkey, through a 12-Step program or via a faith-based program, does not mean that everyone should use the same method. Addiction is complicated and treatment may not look the same for all people. Leave it to the person in recovery and their treatment team to decide what is best for them.
- “Just have one drink.” – A person in recovery from alcohol abuse may seem to be cured, but if they say they don’t feel they should drink, then they are probably correct. They don’t need to risk their sobriety to make someone else feel comfortable.
- “You just need to have more willpower.” – If recovery were as simple as saying no, we wouldn’t have addiction at all. We wouldn’t need support groups, treatment programs, and detox centers.
- “It’s this person’s fault.” – Placing blame doesn’t help anyone to progress with their recovery, whether it is the person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol being blamed, their parents, or someone else entirely.
- “Once an addict, always an addict.” – While it’s true that there is no cure for addiction and that addiction is a daily battle for the rest of one’s life, this phrase implies that progress cannot be made. This is simply not true. Many people in recovery go on to have amazing, productive, happy lives. There is always hope.
- “You’re selfish.” – People struggling with substance abuse often already feel an immense amount of guilt for their choices and need to overcome negative self-talk in order to get/stay sober. Messages like this only make it harder.
- “You have to hit rock bottom before you can recover.” – Actually, the sooner a person gets into treatment, the sooner they can start to get better. It is dangerous and potentially life-threatening to wait for someone to get even worse before they are offered help.
- “You’re going to be like this for the rest of your life.” – Recovery is a transformative process. There are people who go from barely functioning when they are using to working, completing college, raising a family, running a business, and more. If a person is willing to fight for their recovery, they need to hear that the fight will be worth it.
Hurtful and Outdated Terminology
When hurtful words aren’t intentional or the result of harsh judgment, they sometimes stem from old, outdated verbiage a person has not learned to update or does not realize is offensive. The individuals using these terms may not mean any harm. They simply may not know that the terms addict, junkie, druggie, and crackhead should now be replaced with “person with substance use disorder” and that they should no longer call a person a drunk, but instead, a “person with alcohol addiction”. These newer terms are focused on remembering that a person with a problem is not defined by that problem, but as their status as a human being. As a human being, they are deserving of compassion, respect, and the opportunity to change.
Even using the word “habit” to describe addiction can be problematic, as it doesn’t recognize the medical issues underlying addiction. A mere habit can be broken through self-control and repetition, but it takes far more to stop using alcohol and other drugs and the process of detoxification can even be life-threatening in certain cases.
What People in Recovery Need to Hear
When a person has struggled with addiction, their loved ones may not know what to say to support their recovery. Here are some helpful things a friend or family member might choose to say:
- Nothing – Just listening without judgment is often the best support. If they are attending a lot of groups, going to individual therapy, and meeting with a substance abuse counselor, a person may not want to be talked at even more.
- “You can do this.” – Tell the person they are capable of change.
- “I am here for you.” – Remind the person they are not alone.
- “Tell me how I can help.” – Give the person control over their own world, but with support.
- “Let’s spend time together.” – Show that you still want their company.
- “I respect your choice to stop using. That takes a lot of courage and strength.” – Demonstrate that you recognize their struggle, but see them winning the fight.
The professionals at Valley Recovery Center know the power of a person’s team to support them in recovery. We are happy to assist loved ones in building their skills and knowledge around life after addiction.