For many people who have loved ones in recovery, sharing their experience with others can feel like addressing the elephant in the room.
If your loved one is in an inpatient residential program, for example, you might not know how (or if) to talk about that with your own friends or family. Even though you know that a residential program provides a detached, safe place that is extremely beneficial for your loved one, you might still feel uneasy sharing this information with people inquiring after your loved one’s absence.
You usually would never disclose such personal information to people whom you aren’t very close to. But usually those are the people who are asking about your loved one: Why don’t we see your wife at wine night anymore? Where has your brother been; he’s been missing a lot of school lately.
It can be easy to make up a socially-acceptable excuse or stretch the truth a little bit, especially when you’re saying something like this to yourself: it’s not right for me to speak on behalf of my loved one; my loved one wouldn’t want me to tell them; they wouldn’t understand… Though it can feel like the last way you would want to respond, it is often best to tell the truth.
You should tell the truth for two reasons. First, when you lie about your loved one’s substance abuse, you are unintentionally affirming the societal stigma that an addiction is something to be ashamed about. Feeling that an addiction is shameful can be harmful for both your loved and for yourself. It can send a message to your loved one and the person you are answering that someone struggling with addiction is abnormal, embarrassing, or worst of all: alone.
According to the director of Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap, Dr. Kima Joy Taylor, “approximately one in every 10 Americans over the age of 12” are addicted to alcohol and drugs. That is a staggering number of people; people you go to work, school, and church with, maybe even the acquaintances who are asking you these questions. If so many people are struggling with addiction, why does it feel so taboo to talk about it?
Of course it depends on the situation: who you are talking with, if the setting is public or private, if you have time to really tell them what has been going on. Pay attention to your intuition when trying to decide if you are in a situation where you could talk about your loved one’s substance abuse and recovery process.
The second reason why it is important that you tell the truth about your loved one’s recovery is that when you dismiss the person asking about them, you’re dismissing an opportunity to receive support, understanding or even a listening ear. It can feel freeing to open up about what you and your loved one have been dealing with; keeping it a secret will just add to the stress. Especially if this is a new part of your life, attending a support group like the Aviary Center’s Family Wellness Program can be a safe place to try talking about your loved one’s addiction and how it is affecting you.
Here are some tips to keep in mind for the next time an acquaintance or well-meaning stranger asks about your loved one:
- Be sensitive: More people than we might realize have substance abuse issues, so be cautious to use buzzwords like “rehab” and “addict” in the event that they trigger or offend the person that you are talking to.
- Be respectful: Your loved one in recovery is going through a very difficult time, so be mindful to respect the gravity of their situation.
- Be sympathetic: Remember, addiction is not a choice: it is a chronic brain disease. Addiction is like any other form of biological illness; there is no reason that it should not be treated with that same amount of maturity and sympathy.
- Use correct terminology: In January 2017, the Office of National Drug Control Policy issued “a document addressing terminology related to substance use”: Changing the Language of Addiction. Check it out to see what terminology is recommended and what is not.
Addiction does not have to be the elephant in the room. Once you acknowledge addiction for what it is, and not what society purports it to be, then it is no longer the elephant. You never know: maybe the person that you open up to is going through something similar with their loved one, or is struggling with substance abuse themselves. It’s when you make up excuses or fake causes for your loved one’s absence during recovery that you reinforce the idea that addiction is taboo.