If someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, it would be incredibly beneficial not just for their recovery but also for your relationship if you learn how to communicate with them properly. It’s surprisingly common for those struggling or in recovery to hear discouraging and invalidating words from their friends and family—the people who should be their support system. So if we are to be an effective pillar of strength for our loved ones in recovery, then we need to be able to speak to them with compassion and communicate love and support to them.
If you know somebody who is recovering from alcoholism or drug abuse, here are some examples of what not to say to them and some tips on how to talk to them with compassion and support.
Don’t Offer Simplistic Solutions
Avoid saying things like, “You can do it!” or “Mind over matter!” If they could do it, if they could simply quit the bad habit by willing themselves to do so, they would have done it a long time ago. Substance abuse and recovery are complex phenomena that require medical treatment from professionals, perhaps a stay at a drug rehabilitation facility. When we simplify what they’re going through, we invalidate how hard their journey has been and the long and challenging work they put in to simply stay alive. Sometimes, platitudes aren’t enough to help fix a person—they might even do more harm than good.
Do not underestimate the power of good listening. If you find yourself in deep talks with someone who is struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism, you will do well to just offer a listening ear. Here are some tips for proper listening:
- Offer eye contact, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. To look them in the eye is to bestow them honor and dignity; it’s like you’re saying they are worth your time and attention. To ensure that you’re not creepy about it, just look away from time to time in order to rest your eyes too.
- Provide non-verbal cues to communicate that you are listening to them. Don’t just be stoic; let your facial expression show you are on the same page. If you’re surprised, let your facial expression show it. If you’re sad, let your eyes express your sadness. You can also nod and bob your head along when they’re telling you a story.
If you don’t know what to say, or if you’re not entirely sure that what you have in mind will be helpful, just default to listening. Ask them more open-ended questions like, “So how did you feel when that happened?” More often than not, those who are struggling just need someone to listen to them. Moreover, the rule of thumb is that you should be listening more than talking; even mental health professionals and counselors abide by this.
Be Kind and Accepting
Your body language, your eyes, and non-verbal cues can give away how you truly feel about a person. Even if you may not say it out loud, the person you’re talking to will be able to tell if you’re condemning them, especially if they’re already hyper-aware of other people’s judgment and feeling a huge amount of shame over the situation. Aside from offering friendly and encouraging words, make sure your body language is open. Orient your torso towards them when you’re talking, and make sure you communicate openness and warmth through your non-verbal actions.
Know Your Boundaries
Another key point you need to remember when in contact with someone who is struggling with substance abuse is that you are not their doctor or therapist. You are their friend or family member; you are not someone who can fix their problems with a single conversation. You can extend kindness, compassion, and empathy in the limited time you have together, but you are not going to be their savior. Moreover, if you are living with this person in recovery, you need to establish boundaries so that you can make it clear to them that you are not going to enable their addiction and that you are in no way letting codependency into your household.
They Are Worth It
Communicating well with those in recovery may take a lot of tiptoeing, but it’s important we get it right so that we do not harm them. Default to kindness and empathy, and believe in the future they can have despite their current battles. They are worth fighting for in the same way they are fighting for themselves.