August 5, 2021

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How to Talk to Someone With a Substance Abuse Problem

Image: Eddy Chen/HBO

Amid all the justifiable clamor online surrounding COVID-19, the flailing economy, and our generally uncertain global future, a TV show about drug addiction and teenagers is managing to cut through the noise. Sunday’s first special episode of HBO’s Euphoria defied its own conventions as a racy show about chaotic lives, by centering the episode on a wide-ranging conversation about drug addiction between the main character Rue (Zendaya) and her sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo).

To call the conversation—and the episode—engrossing is an understatement. Television rarely provides an example to live by when it comes to public and personal health issues like addiction, but Euphoria illustrated the complexities of tackling this issue with a friend or loved one. Any conversation about addiction will invariably lead you down different paths with different people, but there are a few general principles to abide by when considering that difficult process.

Don’t be critical or judgmental

Even under normal circumstances, criticism and judgment aren’t typically the best social lubricants. Even if this person has wreaked havoc on the lives of those around them, you can’t disparage them, or liken their addiction to willfully making a mistake over and over again.

Addiction is a disease, and though it can be stimulated through a social environment, its foundations lay in the brain. That said, instead of accusatory language, make your remarks less inflammatory.

The Addiction Center lays out some general ground rules in this regard:

Be sure to steer clear from making accusations and criticizing. Rather than jump to conclusions, show empathy in their situation. Saying “you messed up” will only make your friend feel defensive. Instead, try using phrases like “I’m worried about your health” or “I noticed some difficult situations you’ve been facing lately.”

Talk in a safe environment

Not to harp too much on Euphoria’s example, but the episode took place at a deserted diner on Christmas Eve. That’s the kind of environment conducive to candid discussion—basically the opposite of a crowded party, or family dinner, or office break room. Feeling safe from separate commotion or a potential interloper is going to engender this person to open up.

Carve out some time and invite this person over. Make it a calm, personalized affair. Much of the safe environment hinges on being non-confrontational. As the drug treatment organization Narconon advises:

One of the first things to do is to make sure that the addict is comfortable and that you make your communication with them as pleasant and as non-confrontational as possible.

Rely on a support system

This works to your benefit in a few ways. First, it helps hammer home the gravity of the situation by using several people—all of whom have individual relationships with the addict and a personal stake in their recovery. Someone with a substance abuse disorder might be more amenable to one person’s advice versus another’s.

Second, using a multi-person approach will help the person struggling understand that there’s so many people who care about them, and that they’re invested in this person recovering for their own sake.

Use specific language

The language you use is crucial to reduce the stigmatizing effect of drug addiction. A good way to start is by using “I” statements, in which you aren’t referencing the person’s problem and what they’re actually doing, but how their actions affect those around them.

As a paper from Boston University explains:

An “I” message can help you communicate your concerns, feelings, and needs without blaming others or sounding threatening. It helps you get your point across without causing the listener to shut down.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse illustrates the multitude of synonyms you can use to reduce your usage of stigmatizing language. And if you’re not going to use “I” statements, try putting everything in the first person, which might be a little less stringent in terns of limiting your lingual options.

Use person-first language, which focuses on the person—not their illness. It focuses on removing words that define a person by their condition or have negative meanings. For example, “person with a substance use disorder” has a neutral tone and separates the person from his or her disorder.

Seek professional help

Concerned friends and family are an essential piece of the recovery puzzle, but often it can’t be completed without professional help. Know what rehabilitation centers are in your area, or seek one with a great reputation, even if it’s miles away. The dual effect of a support group at home and treatment from trained professionals will certainly help to reinforce one another.

This is a process, so just know that these tactics likely won’t change anything overnight. But a consistent effort to help a loved one recover from addiction can find success, if done the right way.

If you or someone you know is suffering from a substance abuse issue, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).



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