Drug addiction is a scary and messy disease. There are dozens of factors that can help piece together an understanding of how or why an addiction has formed, giving each addict a unique story and experience. Regardless of this story, it is a long and dark journey that only an addict can truly understand. Even the most supportive people may not fully grasp the experience of addiction.
If you know someone that is battling addiction or newly in recovery, be aware that it is not an easy road. Also be aware that everything you have thought about his or her addiction is likely playing on repeat in the addict’s head, already. Need some guidance? Here are 9 things you should never say to an addict and some tips on what to say, instead:
1. Why don’t you just stop doing it?
If an addict could “just stop” doing drugs or drinking alcohol, don’t you think he would? While this is an incredibly logical question that seems to burst from everyone’s minds, when it comes to addiction, it is also a naive question laced with some pretty heavy implications. Not only that, but this is exactly the question that the addict likely asks himself every single morning when he wakes up.
Try this instead: It must be really hard to quit, as I’m sure you’d like to just stop doing it, right?
Why this works: This question opens up the opportunity for the addict to answer this question from a place of safety rather than defense.
2. You’re so selfish.
It’s easy to understand how addiction can look incredibly selfish from the outside. The addict is often choosing her addiction over virtually everything else, day after day. It’s a very isolating disease, as a result. The difference between addiction and selfishness, though, is the presence of immense guilt. The addict knows that it’s a selfish disease and never forgets for a single second everything else she should be investing himself in, instead. The guilt weighs on her like a wet and heavy blanket that is impossible to remove. It is indeed a selfish disease, but the disease is the one that acts wantonly without regard for others. The addict is battling her role as the vessel that allows that to happen.
Try this instead: Do you miss your friends or doing the things that you normally love to do?
Why this works: The addict is fully aware that she’s not spending time or energy on her loved ones or favorite hobbies. She likely feels equally angered that she doesn’t make others a priority anymore, too! Open this up to a discussion so that she can recognize how she no longer spends time with her loved ones without feeling attacked.
3. You’ll probably be like this for the rest of your life.
This is possibly the cruelest statement of all, no matter how true it may be. Indeed, addiction is a lifelong struggle, but when you’re in the throes of addiction this is perhaps your greatest fear the addict has. The future does not seem so bright and, in fact, many addicts probably wonder how much longer they will live at all. Every morning they wake with a complex psychological self-loathing that is only further complicated when, yet again, they were unable to quit using. So your telling them that this is a curse that will last a lifetime only pushes them further into that darkness.
Try this instead: I can imagine that this will be a lifelong commitment when you recover.
Why this works: You are taking the victimization out of the fact that addiction is indeed a lifelong disease. You are also empowering the addict by showing him or her that you believe in his or her ability to recover.
4. This is how to break an addiction.
Addiction is a disease that is made up of a whole host of causes. Getting to the root of the cause is an important step in recovery, meaning that the recovery process is as unique as the individual. Advice on how to break an addiction can not only be incredibly misinformed but it can also make light of the disease. Nobody knows how to break an addiction better than the professionals there to support him and the addict, himself.
Try this instead: I have heard of many ways to recover. I hope that you find a way that works for you.
Why this works: Because it’s the truth.
5. You don’t seem like an addict.
This statement is often meant as a compliment, as if to imply that addicts are dirty and sickly people. But if this person is also an addict then this statement can innocently imply that she is also the dirty and sickly stereotype that we have about addicts. Addicts are riddled with shame as it is and to hear that a loved one might also view them with this lense of shame can be absolutely devastating. The mechanism of addiction in Xanax is different than addiction to cocaine, for example, thus reaching very different groups of addicts in each. All of this to say that an addict may not look like any other addict you have seen before.
Try this instead: You look very well, which just goes to show that addiction knows no limits.
Why this works: Though we assume that addiction displays very obvious physical symptoms, the truth of the matter is that this is not always the case. Acknowledge that the person looks well and also acknowledge that addiction can actually happen to anyone.
6. Can’t you just practice moderation? / I’ve been drinking/trying drugs and I never got addicted.
Just because addiction skipped right over your head does not mean that others are as lucky. It is also not a matter of moderation for addicts. Sometimes one hit is all it takes to spark the disease, which then spreads like wildfire through the addict’s life. If moderation were an option, believe that the addict would have tried it already.
Try this instead: (Maybe don’t comment on this, at all.)
Why this works: There is no reason to insert your judgments or hoist yourself up at the addict’s expense. So why do it?
7. But we’re all addicted to something.
This statement comes from a good place but can be quite damaging. Sometimes it is tempting to normalize an addiction just to make the addict feel better. But an addiction to video games is hardly the same as an addiction to cocaine. Drugs or alcohol change the chemical makeup of the brain so much that the brain becomes a jail cell for the addict more so than a time sucking activity. While this statement may technically be true, it does more damage to the addict by minimizing their disease than it does to help.
Try this instead: I can’t imagine what it must be like to be addicted to (fill in blank here).
Why this works: Again, it’s the truth. You truly can’t understand the addict’s experience because his addiction is not the same as your addictions. By saying this, instead, you are honoring his experience and respecting his experience as his own.
8. What is the craziest story you have from being an addict?
Addiction certainly takes you to dark and crazy places at times. These memories, though, bring more shame than excitement to the addict. Perhaps you are trying to make light of the situation in hopes of making the addict more comfortable. But you run the risk of humiliating the addict, instead. She is not a monkey meant to entertain you, and as innocent a question this may be it reduces the addict’s experience to one of entertainment.
Try this instead: (Another good opportunity to keep your curiosity to yourself)
Why this works: Addiction is a long and winding road. Maybe the addict will want to share some stories with you, but probably not until recovery is in full swing. Let the addict set the pace and follow her lead.
9. Why would you choose to do drugs if you know they’re bad for you?
Let’s be clear about drugs: nobody does them because they’re good for you. While it is common knowledge that drugs are bad for you, we still have millions of people abusing them everyday. Drug addiction comes about for a variety of reasons. The demographics, the family background, the mental health, the genetics, and even sexual identity all play a role in addiction. Whether or not drugs are good for you is essentially irrelevant. So asking such a reductive question as this can do more harm than good by highlighting the fact that the addict has made a poor choice, which he is likely already fully aware of.
Try this instead: I’m worried about your health as you continue to use.
Why this works: Speaking the truth from a place of compassion is much more effective, no matter the statement. We all know that drugs are bad for us, the addict included. What you’re actually implying when pointing that out is that the drugs are damaging to the addict’s health. So why not begin with that sentiment, instead?