What (and What Not) to Say When Talking with a Recovering Addict

Last Updated: April 29, 2024

Learning to live without the substance they once depended on leaves many recovering addicts uncertain about the future. People working through addiction and recovery need mountains of support, especially in the earliest stages.

Unless you have been there, it is difficult to find the right words. If your friend or loved one needs a helping hand, here are some timeless words that can help (and some that you should avoid).

Believe That the Problem is Real

When your friend talks about addiction and recovery, do them and yourself a favor. Believe it. The news might come as a shock. Maybe you have preconceived ideas about people with addiction problems. Your friend might not meet any of the criteria that you imagined. Addictions happen at every socioeconomic level. They affect rich and poor alike.

Do: express your belief in the person and in his or her ability to fight addiction successfully.

Avoid: downplaying or denying that the addiction is real. People in recovery need support. Denying it can compound the embarrassment they may already feel.

Help Them Stay on the Right Path

Think of fun activities that you and your friend or family member can participate in together. Whether they are group outings or just the two of you, the more normalcy that you can help introduce into a recovering addict’s routine, the better. Even if you plan to stay in and watch a movie, be the friend with a positive attitude and a great plan for the day.

Do: say things such as “I was thinking maybe we could do something fun today.”
Avoid: suggesting that “just this once” a drink or drug won’t hurt. Psychology Today says one incident off course can create a landslide back into addiction. If you know that a gathering will likely include alcohol or drugs, be a good friend and think of something better to do.

Ask Them How They’re Doing

People in recovery have the same everyday tasks and concerns as you. They may have a job, bills to pay and other responsibilities to meet. Your friend probably has aspirations as well as frustrations.

Do: ask your friend how he or she is doing. More importantly, ask it with sincerity. Empathy and even pity might seem appropriate, at least at times, but it is better to accentuate what is normal in their life.

Avoid: referring to sobriety in specific terms. For people in recovery, the substance addiction is always the elephant in the room. It does not need to be constantly underlined.

Let Them Know You Are Available for Support

Sometimes, the best friend to have is the one with the largest capacity to truly listen. Some people in recovery may not want to talk about it. Others need to verbalize their struggles as well as their successes. Remember that your friend’s sobriety is about them, alone. Your job as a friend is to listen and support, not necessarily to commiserate.

Do: say “I’m here, and I’m listening.”

Avoid: relating anything in your life to their recovery journey. It may be a natural reaction; however, anything you use as a comparison can belittle, not support, what your friend is going through. According to Psychology Today, one little sentence can derail a conversation. Skip the urge to say “I know how you feel.” It lacks sensitivity and turns the conversation away from your friend.

Addiction recovery can be a rollercoaster of events and emotions. Friends and family have the power to support it. They can also help it make a U-turn, depending on the approach. It is normal to want to stay involved with your friend and help him or her succeed. While your friend finds the way on an uncertain path, remember that understanding, acceptance, and a good listening ear are therapeutic.

If you or a loved one have an addiction problem, contact us to learn how a caring, therapeutic environment can help.

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