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What NOT to Say to Someone in Recovery

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

May 2, 2024

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Understanding what to say to a recovering alcoholic or someone grappling with drug addiction can be challenging if you have not faced these experiences yourself. Learning more about substance use disorders and knowing which words and phrases might be unhelpful can help you provide the kind of support that positively influences your loved one’s recovery journey.

What Not to Say to a Recovering Addict

Drug addiction is clinically described as substance use disorder. Some drug addictions involve prescription medications like opioids or benzos, while other substance use disorders are associated with illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine, meth, and fentanyl.

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Regardless of the substance of abuse, addiction is recognized as a chronic and relapsing brain condition. Understanding this can help you guide your loved one more effectively to seek the help they need. Knowing what not to say to a recovering drug addict can avoid inflaming the situation.

“Can’t you just stop using drugs?”

Asking this question implies that overcoming addiction is a matter of using willpower. NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) states that substance use disorder is characterized by the compulsive use of drugs or alcohol in the face of obviously adverse outcomes. There are many physical and psychological factors which play into the development of addiction. Recovery often requires medical intervention, ongoing therapy, and long-term support. Addiction is not a choice, and it can be dangerous for someone to abruptly stop using drugs or alcohol without supervision.

“Everyone needs an escape – why not use drugs?”

Making a statement like this trivializes the person’s experiences with substance abuse and suggests that drug use is an acceptable coping mechanism. Although many people self-medicate stress or mental health issues with drugs, this provides only fleeting relief and does nothing to address the underlying issue. Never downplay someone’s struggles with addictive substances.

“I can’t believe you’re addicted.”

Expressions of shock or disbelief can be easily interpreted as accusatory, suggesting that addiction stems from poor choices rather than a blend of genetic, social, and environmental factors.

“But you don’t look like an addict.”

There are many inaccurate and damaging stereotypes surrounding drug addiction, including the flawed notion that it only affects certain types of people. Addiction doesn’t discriminate and impacts all age groups and social demographics. Some functional addicts display no outward signs of struggles with substance abuse while maintaining their personal and professional commitments.

“Why did you get addicted to those pills if they were prescribed?”

Addiction to opioids, benzos, and other prescription medications often begins with a legitimate medical need. Sustained use of any medication, though, leads to the development of tolerance and dependence. Dependence often but not always leads to addiction.

What Not to Say to an Alcoholic

Alcoholism is clinically described as alcohol use disorder. Like drug addiction, alcohol use disorder involves compulsive consumption regardless of adverse outcomes. Although alcoholism is incurable, it’s highly treatable with the right evidence-based interventions. Helping someone with alcoholism can be challenging, so here are some things to avoid saying to a loved one battling alcohol abuse.

“At least it’s only alcohol and not drugs.”

This statement dismisses alcohol addiction as less serious than drug addiction, ignoring the fact that it’s a chronic and potentially life-threatening condition. Alcohol poisoning and alcohol withdrawal can be fatal. Chronic alcohol abuse is associated with severe health complications.

“Can’t you just limit yourself to one drink?”

Alcoholism is defined by uncontrollable use of alcohol, even when drinking triggers negative outcomes. Someone who is battling an alcohol addiction may be unable to exercise self-restraint when overwhelmed by intense cravings which override their ability to limit consumption.

“You’re only a social drinker, right?”

This kind of statement can downplay the severity of a person’s alcoholism by insinuating that their drinking isn’t problematic if it occurs in social settings. This can perpetuate denial of the problem.

“You seem fine to me – are you sure you’re an alcoholic?

Questioning a person’s acknowledgment of their alcoholism challenges their self-awareness and the reality of their struggles, potentially weakening their commitment to recovery. Acknowledging the existence of a problem with drinking is the first step that enables people to begin the recovery process. Don’t undermine this.

“You don’t drink like you have a problem with alcohol.”

Comments like this are based on misconceptions about how alcoholism manifests. Not everyone with alcohol use disorder engages in binge drinking episodes, and someone with alcoholism may not drink every day. This condition presents on a spectrum from mild to severe and has many manifestations.

What to Say to Someone in Recovery

When speaking to someone in recovery, try to promote a supportive and empowering dialogue. Start by acknowledging their courage. A simple “I’m proud of you” can affirm their effort and reinforce their commitment to the challenging but rewarding recovery process. Affirmation reminds them that their hard work is seen and valued.

Encourage open dialogue by offering a non-judgmental ear: “I’m here if you want to talk, but no pressure at all.” This extends a welcoming invitation for the person to share their experiences without feeling pressured or obligated. Telling your loved one that you’re available on their terms can be incredibly comforting.

You might also express optimism about their future: “I’m excited to see all the good things ahead for you.” This highlights your belief in their potential and the positive outcomes that can arise from their journey. It shifts the focus from past struggles to future possibilities, which can be inspiring for someone working through the recovery process.

It’s also beneficial to recognize their progress, no matter how small it may seem. Saying, “I’ve noticed the changes you’re making, and it’s inspiring to see,” can make all the difference. It signals that you appreciate the incremental nature of recovery and understand that each step is significant.

Lastly, remind them of their strengths outside of their addiction: “Your kindness, humor, and strength have always been such an important part of who you are.” This helps them to remember that their identity is not solely defined by their addiction or recovery, but also by the unique attributes which they bring to their relationships and the world.

Getting Help for Addiction at Renaissance Recovery

If you need to help a loved one with an addiction connect with compassionate and evidence-based treatment, reach out to Renaissance Recovery today.

Our recovery specialists will help your friend or family member detox from drugs or alcohol under close medical supervision. This mitigates complications, increases comfort, and provides them with access to medications if required. After addressing the issue of dependence, they will transition to ongoing outpatient treatment at our facilities in Southern California and Florida.

All addiction treatment programs at Renaissance offer targeted treatments that include:

  • Medication-assisted treatment
  • Psychotherapies (CBT and DBT) 
  • Motivational therapies
  • One-to-one counseling
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Holistic interventions
  • Aftercare planning

Help your loved find begin their recovery by calling Renaissance at 866.330.9449 for immediate assistance.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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