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 mere acquaintances. But acquaintances are often the people 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, and perhaps that is an appropriate response when the person asking has no real interest other than curiosity or conversation-making. With your loved one’s permission, though, there can be good reasons for telling people the truth.
First, when you lie about your loved one’s substance abuse, you are affirming the societal stigma that an addiction is something to be ashamed about. Shame is harmful to both your loved and yourself. It can send a message that someone struggling with addiction is abnormal, embarrassing, or–worst of all–alone.
Considering that up to 1 in 7 Americans will struggle with substance use disorder at some point in their lives, 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 benefit of telling the truth about your loved one’s recovery is that it may result in an opportunity for you 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 avoid buzzwords like “rehab” and “addict” in the event that they trigger or offend the person 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 use themselves.