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How to Talk to Your Family (And Others) About Addiction

There are often barriers to acknowledging your difficulties with substance use disorder (SUD). Thus, talking about your SUD with your family and friends can feel even more daunting. You may find yourself worrying about how your loved ones will react. In addition, there may be an endless string of scary questions that might pop into your head. Will they be angry or treat you differently? Despite your concerns, your loved ones can be an important connection of support on your journey toward long-term recovery. For this reason, you should talk to your family about SUD and other conditions like mental health disorders.

At The Guest House, we know humans are naturally social creatures who seek and thrive on connection. Moreover, through connection, you are reminded that you are not alone. The formation of deep meaningful bonds of love, trust, and support are born through vulnerable discussions with your loved ones. When you share your experiences, it opens the door to a deeper understanding of each other and yourself. In other words, when you talk to your family about your SUD, it can present an opportunity for healing for everyone.

Nevertheless, you may wonder how to talk to your family about your specific experiences. Moreover, it can feel especially uncomfortable to talk to your family about addiction because of the stigma that exists surrounding it.

How to Talk to Your Family About SUD Stigma

According to an article from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), stigma is the relationship between an attribute and stereotypes that suggest you have undesirable labels, qualities, and behaviors. Moreover, HHS notes that there are three different levels of stigma:

  • Structural or Institutional stigma:
    • Laws, policies, and regulations that cause intentional and unintentional discrimination
    • Stigmatized groups have limited access to opportunities and resources
      • Increases poor physical and psychological health outcomes
    • Stigma can lead to restrictive access to treatment, including prescription medication
  • Public stigma:
    • The assumed attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of individuals and groups of people
    • An emotional reaction or prejudice is formed from stereotypes about a person or group
      • Stereotyping leads to the discrimination of individuals and or groups that are perceived to have an undesirable attribute
    • Stigma presents substance use as a choice rather than a chronic health condition
      • This leads the public to blame people with SUD for their condition
      • Decreases support for recovery options
  • Self-stigma:
    • Often associated with shame
    • You internalize negative stereotypes about yourself
    • Stigmatized language from family and healthcare professionals can increase feelings of shame
      • You perceive yourself as flawed, unworthy of love, belonging, and connection
        • Can decrease the desire to seek help

The three levels of stigma highlight its impacts on how others see you, how you see yourself, and how you are treated. Moreover, the different levels of stigma showcase the need for self, community, and societal understanding of SUD. As noted in Ending Discrimination Against People with Mental and Substance Use Disorders: The Evidence for Stigma Change from the National Academy of Sciences, contact and experience can both play important roles in challenging stigma.

For instance, the quality of interaction can play a role in the effectiveness of connection between people. Therefore, contact as an intervention for reducing stigma can be beneficial. According to the National Academy of Sciences, having a family member diagnosed with SUD decreased stigma compared to others. Therefore, talk to your family to establish more connection between your experiences and their understanding of addiction.

However, you may wonder where you should start. You can start taking steps to share your experiences and reduce your family’s potential stigma by paying close attention to your use of language.

Understanding the Importance of Language in Recovery

As HHS notes, language does matter in its ability to either uplift and empower or discourage and limit. Thus, stigmatized language can reinforce SUD stigma and prevent your family from being a source of support for you. According to the article “Words Matter – Terms to Use and Avoid When Talking About Addiction” from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), person-first language can help destigmatize SUD in both healthcare settings and with your family.

Moreover, person-first language considers the whole person and the value of self-worth and love in recovery. In addition, as noted in “Words Matter: Preferred Language for Talking About Addiction” from NIDA, person-first language gives you the space to choose how you are described. Therefore, you are empowered to share your experiences with your family rather than have others tell you who you are.

Person-First Language

As the NIDA articles state, listed below are some ways you can talk to your family in person-first language:

  • A person with:
    • Substance use disorder and/or drug addiction
    • Opioid addiction (OUD)
    • Alcohol use disorder (AUD)
  • A person who:
    • Misuses alcohol
    • Is in recovery or long-term recovery
    • Previously used drugs
    • Currently uses drugs
    • Is in remission or is abstinent from drugs, is not drinking or taking drugs, or is not currently or actively using drugs
    • Engages in illicit drug use or misuse or uses prescription medication for reasons other than prescribed

Terms to Avoid

In addition, some examples of terms to avoid when discussing SUD and addiction include:

  • Addict, user, substance or drug abuser, and junkie
  • Alcoholic
  • Drunk
  • A former addict and or reformed addict
  • Dirty and failed a drug test
    • May increase feelings of hopelessness
    • Decrease self-efficacy toward change
  • Clean
    • This can lead you to form negative implicit perceptions of your SUD
  • Habit
    • Incorrectly implies that you are choosing to use substances or can stop anytime
    • Can undermine the seriousness of SUD
  • Abuse
    • Increased association with discrimination and prejudice

In summary, using intentional language helps in the following ways:

  • For person-first language
    • Showcases that SUD is a chronic illness
    • SUD is the problem rather than the person as the problem
    • Avoids negative associations, discriminatory attitudes, and blaming the individual
  • For using medically accurate terminology
    • Using medical terminology places testing and SUD on the same level as other medical conditions
    • It acknowledges SUD as a medical condition rather than as a weakness of character
    • This can help reduce the stigma around SUD

Thus, person-first language showcases how to talk to your family, giving you a common foundation of language to start the conversation. However, you may worry if your family will understand why the language you use is important for your recovery. It may feel scary to talk to your family about feelings like shame and guilt. When you talk to your family, it is important to address more than the substance and the mechanics of treatment. This is because the psychological impact of SUD is just as important as the physical and social consequences of SUD.

By addressing the psychological impact of SUD on your well-being, you can deepen your family’s understanding of you. Moreover, addressing psychological factors can provide space for more conversations on how your self-defeating or self-destructive behaviors have negatively impacted the family. Finding a path to long-term recovery means treating the whole person in mind, body, and spirit. Thus, how you talk to your family about your psychological wellness can be impactful on the whole family’s recovery.

Talk to Your Family About the Impact of Shame on Recovery

According to an article from Plos One, shame and guilt are distinctive emotions related to negative self-conscious emotions. Moreover, negative self-conscious emotions are a reflection of feelings about yourself in relation to others. Thus, shame is a reflection of your self-worth or value in comparison to others. For example, being excluded from an event can lead to feeling shame because you assume it means there is something wrong with you. Shame acts as a threat to your sense of social belonging. When your social belonging is threatened, it encourages you to avoid and change yourself to regain your sense of belonging.

Meanwhile, guilt is a reflection of your behavior in comparison to others. For example, you may experience guilt because you did not invite all of your friends to your birthday party. Furthermore, shame and guilt can play a role in how you experience SUD. The aforementioned article notes that shame-free guilt may help you deploy some adaptive coping responses like apologizing for your behavior and limiting your consumption of substances. Shame, on the other hand, more often presents a maladaptive response, as it impedes your ability to have a positive sense of self.

Therefore, when you only feel guilty about a certain behavior, you are more likely to take steps to address or change the behavior. Meanwhile, shame leaves you feeling bad about who you are as a person, which increases the likeliness that you will deepen your entanglement with substances as a means of self-medication and avoidance of emotional distress. Moreover, the negative impact of shame on self-worth highlights the importance of self-understanding and love in recovery.

In the same way that you may feel shame about your SUD, your family may share similar feelings of guilt and shame. For example, six dysfunctional family roles born out of SUD showcase shame at the core of the family’s dysfunction. As noted in a handout from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS), within the six dysfunctional family roles, each family member has a wall of protection that mask a shared core of shame.

Additionally, as noted in chapter two of the Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), it is important to remember that your loved one’s reactions to your SUD are a reflection of their own attempts to cope. Thus, how you talk to your family presents an opportunity for you to work together to build healthier coping strategies for long-term healing.

Talk to Your Family About the Impact of Connection on Recovery

According to an article from Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment, supportive relationships can have a positive impact on your recovery and relationships with your loved ones. In addition, as noted in an article from Innovation in Aging, family relationships play a central role in shaping your well-being across your life. Moreover, the interdependent nature of social relationships throughout your life presents important social connections and influences.

In other words, the formation of social connection and influence increases your sense of purpose and meaning as an individual and as a member of the social group. However, the positive benefits of your social relationship with family, friends, and others are dependent on healthy supportive relationships.

Listed below are some examples of family relationships that can support or hinder your physical and psychological well-being:

  • Social support:
    • Provide love
    • Offer advice
    • Provide care
  • Strain:
    • Frequent arguments
    • Being critical of each other
    • Making an excessive number of demands on each other

Moreover, social supports and strain showcase the role relationships can play in how you feel about yourself and each other. Therefore, when you talk to your family about SUD, you can also open the door to addressing healthy and unhealthy family dynamics.

Finding a Healthy Relationship Balance With Your Loved Ones

According to Family Dynamics by Bahareh Jabbari and Audra S. Rouster, there are several factors that reflect healthy and unhealthy family dynamics:

  • Healthy dynamics:
    • Individuation
      • You have a clear understanding of yourself
      • The formation of your independent identity
    • Mutuality
    • Flexibility
    • Stability
    • Clear communication
    • Role reciprocity
      • Your roles within the family are mutually beneficial
  • Unhealthy dynamics:
    • Enmeshment
      • There are no clear healthy boundaries in your relationships
      • You have an unhealthy emotional entanglement in others’ emotions
    • Isolation
    • Rigidity
    • Disorganization
    • Unclear communication
    • Role conflict
      • You take on more than one role within the family that conflicts with each other

Moreover, unhealthy family dynamics can lead to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and increase your risk for SUD, physical health issues, and mental health disorders. However, it is important to remember that people are not perfect, and nor should you strive for perfection. As noted in an article from Mental Health America (MHA), every family experiences some level of dysfunction. There might be moments of tension, disagreements, or miscommunication in many families, especially when you encounter life stressors. For example, trying to organize for a big move to a new house can cause a breakdown in communication as you stress over everything that needs to be done.

However, oftentimes such breakdowns in communication are short-lived because the moving stressor is not permanent. In light of the aforementioned example, you are able to adapt and return to using clear healthy communication with your loved ones during the move. Therefore, family dysfunction becomes unhealthy when relationships are strained all of the time, regardless of additional life stressors. As Innovation in Aging notes, stressors and social support play an important role in how you cope with different situations and experiences.

When you have access to healthy supportive relationships, you have access to more psychological resources like an improved sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Moreover, an increase in positive psychological resources encourages optimism and improves mental health as maladaptive coping strategies like SUD decrease. Therefore, if you talk to your family about building healthier relationships, it could support your long-term recovery and the health of the family.

Moreover, how you talk to your family, presents an opportunity to form and share a common goal for recovery. When you and your family have a common goal, you can encourage each other to discover and build healthier selves. However, you may wonder how you can take steps toward building a healthy connection with your family on your recovery journey. How do you talk to your family about taking the journey to long-term recovery together? At the core of recovery is support, which can not only be found when you talk to your family but also in the healthcare resources you seek out.

Building Tools for Long-Term Recovery at the Guest House

Getting to a point where you feel comfortable and prepared to talk to your family about your SUD is as much a journey as recovery itself. At The Guest House, we know recovery is a lifelong journey that begins even before you start treatment. For this reason, we believe in providing multiple levels of care to meet you in whatever stage of recovery you are on. Moreover, offering different levels of care means we can provide tools to support you before, during, and after you talk to your family.

In addition, much like you, every family is at a different stage of recovery and multiple levels of care offer the healing space to meet individual needs. Thus, with our wide variety of therapeutic modalities and a holistic approach to care, you can build tools to talk to your family. As noted in an article from the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, recovery is a process of personal growth to support long-term healing beyond treatment. With support, you can learn how to dismantle self-defeating behaviors, talk to your family, and transition to an independent life.

Reaching out to talk to your family about your substance use disorder can feel daunting. However, connecting with your family can be an important part of your recovery journey. Moreover, sharing your experiences with your loved ones can open the door for deeper understanding and healing for the whole family. When you have access to supportive relationships, your psychological well-being improves. Healthy connections can support adaptive coping strategies to dismantle your self-defeating behaviors. Therefore, at The Guest House, we believe in providing a holistic approach to care and a variety of therapeutic modalities to meet you and your family where you are on your journey to long-term recovery. Call The Guest House at (855) 483-7800 to learn more today.