How to Talk to Family Members About Addiction

How to Talk to Family Members About Addiction

Couple sitting on lakeside bench at sunsetStruggling with the disease of substance use disorder usually means dealing with friends and family who are angry, lack understanding or may even blame themselves. Often family members ask themselves where they went wrong and think they could have helped prevent the addiction “If I’d only been a better parent/sibling/son/daughter/grandparent, etc.” There may be a lot of arguing, tears and bitter words. So how can you talk to family members about addiction?

Understand that one of the key feelings surrounding addiction is shame.

Shame is not guilt. Guilt is having negative feelings about something you did. Shame is feeling really bad about who you are. Lots of people with addiction experience shame, and it negatively affects many aspects of their lives. Letting go of shame without help is not recommended, and I would urge you to get therapy as part of your recovery.

Identify “unsafe” family members first and gravitate to family members who you think will be understanding.

If you expect shaming rather than a supportive experience with a family member, then it may be a good idea to get counseling from a professional before talking to that family member about your illness.

Learn about the disease yourself before you approach someone in your life who has a need to know about your illness.

You can explain that addiction is a chronic disease and requires ongoing treatment, much like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, depression and cancer.

Explain that the nature of addiction makes it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to quit cold turkey.

Most people, even a lot of folks with addiction, think that you should be able to “just stop.” Explaining the disease of addiction can often be helpful in getting loved ones to understand that the addicted brain does not readily take no for an answer. Illustrating this for friends and family may help them begin to understand and offer appropriate support.

Remember that you did not volunteer to have a substance use disorder.

Volunteering for recovery is what is going to help loved ones understand your plight. When talking to family and friends about addiction, explain you did not intend for this to happen, you have learned about this brain disease, and you are working on a program to treat your illness.

“I am sorry for the pain this disease has caused you and the pain it has caused me.”

It is OK to cite the disease and the distorted thinking that accompanies it. You do not need to beat yourself up in front of others, that’s just adding more shame. Rather, take responsibility for getting better.

Also think about how your loved one can be helpful. I don’t mean by lying for you or handing out money, rather by just listening, giving you rides to meetings or groups, or perhaps attending meetings for friends and family, for example Al-Anon Family Groups.

Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon Family Groups all offer literature explaining the disease of addiction and literature specifically for family or friends. Local groups can be found on the web.

An excellent source of information for you and your family is Dr. Kevin McCauley’s DVD “Pleasure Unwoven”. This fascinating presentation explains in simple terms the anatomy and neurophysiology of the disease of substance use disorder. It will hold their interest and will give you and your family more insight into what is going on in your brain. You can watch it on YouTube or purchase the DVD.


Bruce Springer, MDBruce C. Springer, MD, specializes in treatment of addictions. He is a physician in Pine Rest’s Addictions Services and brings more than 30 years of experience to the field.

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