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When someone you know is recovering from an addiction, it can be hard to know what to say about it. If you’ve never experienced addiction or recovery, it is difficult to understand. By giving you some things not to say to recovering addicts, it will help you understand both addiction and recovery a bit more, so you can choose your words wisely.

You must have amazing willpower

Addicts have very little willpower biologically. When they have a hit of anything which produces dopamine, their brain over-reacts and wants a whole lot more of it. They find it very hard to take or leave anything dopaminergic, from cake to cider to crack.

Willpower suggests resisting something you “want”. Addicts are actually resisting something their body tells them they “need”. Saying that recovery is about willpower is akin to saying we can stop breathing and survive using the force of our will. Tell them they have wonderful strength, if you want. They’ll probably laugh or look bemused if you mention willpower.

So, are you going to drink normally now?

If you read the part about an addict’s biology, you should sort of know the answer to this one. An addict’s body and brain floods them with overwhelming urges to have more of substances that produce dopamine, such as alcohol. For an alcoholic to stay in stable recovery, they must usually be totally abstinent.

If someone you know has been addicted to alcohol, do not ask them to have a drink or even to go to a bar. Even boozy environments can trigger cravings in some alcoholics. If you know a recovering drug user, they may have a drink from time to time. But please don’t encourage it, or they may wind up with another addiction later down the line.

Good luck with your recovery

I know you mean well, but recovery is not down to luck. It is mind-bendingly difficult to overcome addiction. It’s bloody hard work. It’s not like winning the lottery, which is totally random. If someone you know has recovered from an addiction, you can bet it took every ounce of strength they have.

The only luck involved in recovering from addiction is if an addict chances upon a great rehab, therapist, support network, or recovery path that works well for them. The rest of it is all about strength and hard work. Sure, why not wish them luck? It’s a cultural thing. Just understand that their recovery was never down to luck, so don’t think or speak too lightly of it. That’s my point.

Do you know how much you hurt me?

Yes, an addict knows the damage their addiction has caused to everyone else. Some people think that when their loved one finds sobriety, it’s a good time to pick over everything the addict has said and done to hurt you. It isn’t. Guilt and shame can drive an addict back to their addiction.

If you need to express how hurtful someone’s addiction was, write them a heartfelt letter and never send it. See a counsellor to let it all out. Or, if you really must say something, give the addict a “feedback sandwich”, expressing all the wonderful things you think about them recovering as well as the negative parts of their addiction.

But, if you want their addiction to remain in the past, it’s wisest to leave it in the past yourself. The person in recovery is not the same person who hurt you with their addiction. An addict has most likely already tortured themselves with the pain they've caused, so they're not "getting off the hook". Most addicts plan to make reparations anyway – why not let them do that and move on?

Are you going to get a job now?

Of course, you want them to have a normal life. Recovering addicts want normal lives, too. But early recovery is a full-time job. Recovering addicts need to process pain and heal wounds – the reason anyone becomes an addict is to mask tremendous pain that they have been unable to deal with. Extra stress and pressure, when sobriety is already challenging, can drive addicts to relapse.

Don’t encourage recovering addicts to get a job, enter a relationship, or anything else that risks causing them undue stress. Addicts need to build up the resilience to cope with life, especially if they have had a long addiction. It’s great to encourage addicts to build some structure into their lives, like regularly attending support groups, doing exercise, or volunteering. These are the training wheels to enable them to move into a “normal” life, which they will do when they are fully stable.

I’m glad you’re finally taking responsibility

Many people view addicts as irresponsible, as people who just like a party, or who don’t care about anyone else. Addicts are actually people who care way too much. They care about what people think of them. They stress over the littlest things. They blame themselves for everything, whether it is their fault or not. They go out of their way to please other people and neglect their own needs.

It’s not that addicts are irresponsible – it’s that they cannot cope with the pressure their own mind puts upon them. Most people who become addicts suffer from depression and anxiety as a result of self-imposed expectations and demands. They have usually lived under a ridiculous amount of responsibility and eventually couldn’t take it any longer.

Recovery is not about taking responsibility as people commonly use the word. It’s about understanding the things they can, and cannot, control; accepting the things they are, and are not, responsible for. Recovery is about becoming wiser to reality, rather than feeling unduly responsible for everything. So be glad they’re not being quite as responsible and are, instead, becoming wiser.

What should I say then?

The best thing you can say to a recovering addict is that you support their recovery, are proud of their progress, and you love them. Why not leave it at that?

by Beth Burgess, Therapist and award-winning author of The Recovery FormulaThe Happy Addict, and Instant Wisdom.


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