How to Tell Your Family About Your Substance Use Disorder

Explaining addiction to a non addict is not always easy, but it can be very important to your recovery—especially during the holiday season, when families gather together. Family can be a wonderful source of support during addiction treatment, and being open with them about your experiences can help create an atmosphere of acceptance and bring you closer together. Conversely, trying to avoid talking about your substance use disorder with your family can add a great deal of stress to an already stressful time of year.

Addiction and the Holidays

The holidays are a time of celebration for many, and these celebrations often revolve around champagne or eggnog with rum. If you are working to overcome substance use disorder, the stress of being around people who are celebrating with alcohol or drugs can be overwhelming.

20 percent of relapse cases are caused by this kind of stress.

The holidays can also bring back difficult family memories—some which may be challenging because they’re painful, but others may be trying because remembering happier times can give you a feeling of loss as you consider the negative impact that substance use disorder has had on your life.

All Americans feel a pressure to create and enjoy a Hallmark Channel, Norman Rockwell style of family gathering like those so often depicted in advertising, movies, and television. That pressure creates enormous stress, as even the happiest of families will usually fail to live up to this ideal. In the case of families impacted by substance use disorder, holiday gatherings may fall even shorter of the perfect image, creating anger, disappointment, and shame, instead of warmth and good cheer.

Good self-care is always important, but it is crucial during the holidays. Make sure that you get quality sleep and physical exercise, eat enough healthy food, take breaks when you need them, and be kind to yourself. And although it is important to set firm boundaries with your family, don’t build walls. Keeping secrets or refusing to talk about your substance use disorder will close you off from connections that could be a wonderful source of strength and hope during your recovery.

Explaining Addiction to a Non Addict

Most people who haven’t directly dealt with a substance use disorder will have some degree of difficulty understanding what you’re going through. You have to speak up directly if you want your family members to recognize what you’re going through. The thought of explaining addiction to non addicts can be overwhelming, but there are steps you can take to make the process easier. You should also remember that the burden of silence tends to be much more challenging to cope with than any difficulties you might encounter in the process of expressing yourself.

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10 Tips for Talking About Your Substance Use Disorder

1. Make sure you have a good understanding of addiction before you try to talk about it.

Educating yourself about the nature of the disease of addiction is not just necessary for telling your family about your substance use disorder, it is also a necessary part of recovery, helping you break through denial and begin accepting and forgiving yourself. Do some reading, call a hotline, or consult an expert on substance use disorders to learn more.  You don’t have to flood your family with intensely detailed explanations about drug and alcohol addictions, but you probably do need to give them the basics.

Explain that even though a substance use disorder begins with the act of drinking or taking drugs, addictive substances make changes in the structure and chemistry of the brain that compromise your ability to make healthy choices, and push you towards compulsive substance use despite harmful effects and the desire to quit. Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease like diabetes or hypertension, and like those diseases, it requires ongoing treatment to manage.

2. Make a plan of action and be prepared to answer questions about it.

Whether you are talking about your substance use disorder with family because you want to get treatment, or because you are already in treatment, you should be ready to tell them your general recovery plan and how you’re going to make it happen. Your loved ones will probably want to know where you’ll be getting treatment, what kind of treatment you’ll be getting, how you’re going to pay for it, how long it will take, and what happens afterwards.

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3. Don’t let fear get in the way of the conversation.

It can be scary to talk about substance use disorder. Although you are not your disease, the disease of addiction is a part of you, and has no doubt had a profound impact on your life and the lives of your loved ones. Facing up to the magnitude of this can be scary, as can the fear of negative reactions from others. But recovery takes the courage to face up to things that frighten you, and go ahead and do what you need to do in spite of the fear you feel.

4. Pick the time, place, and person wisely.

Announcing to the whole family in the middle of Christmas dinner that you are getting addiction treatment may be tempting if you’re the sort of person who likes to get things over with as quickly as possible, but it is probably not be the best idea. Besides, you don’t have to tell everyone, everything, all at once—especially not right away. Start by approaching a family member or members that you trust, or who have already expressed concern about your substance use. Find a quiet place to talk at a time when conversation is unlikely to be cut short by appointments or interruptions.

5. Be honest.

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Unfortunately, not everyone will be understanding about your substance use disorder.

Honesty keeps you from being in denial, and keeps you on track for recovery. Be honest about what is going on with you, including how much and how long you’ve been using. Take off the mask you wear to hide your substance use disorder, and let your family see the seriousness of what you are facing. Complete honesty will help them understand why you don’t want to go to a Christmas party that is notorious for heavy drinking, or why you don’t want to invite over a childhood friend who you used to get high with. Honesty may make you feel ashamed at first, but openness is the only way to free yourself from those feelings of shame and learn how to accept yourself.

6. Keep calm.

Explaining addiction to a non addict can be emotional, especially when you share a complicated family history with that person, but do your best to stay calm, without arguing or becoming hostile. Directly acknowledge and apologize for anything you’ve done to hurt your family, and without placing blame, explain what kinds of behaviors, attitudes, situations, etc., encourage your own addictive behaviors, so they can avoid enabling you in the future.

7. Be prepared for defensiveness, resistance, and denial.

While many family members will react with loving understanding, others may get angry or refuse to accept what you say. Bringing up behaviors that enable your substance use, while necessary, may cause some family members to become defensive or hostile, even if you explain yourself in a way that avoids blame. Some of your family may deny your substance use disorder altogether, or else minimize it by saying you’re being overdramatic, that the problem isn’t that bad, or that you just need to use your willpower. These kinds of reactions are usually more about their own issues than about you. Denial is a protective mechanism that people use to avoid the pain of facing up to reality and the challenges of changing the way they see themselves or the world. Keep this in mind, as well as the fact that while you may hope that everyone you care about understands and accepts your substance use disorder and your recovery process, not everyone will—and furthermore, you don’t actually need them to understand and accept in order to achieve a healthy recovery.

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8. Let go of resentment, ulterior motives, and expectations.

It’s natural to have some idea of what you want to get out of talking about your substance use disorder with your family, but it’s important to not cling to those ideas, or to speak up only because you expect it to give you motivation, affirmation, or acceptance. It is unfair to expect your family to meet your emotional needs right away, or at all. Share because you need to establish a healthy recovery environment (such as keeping addictive substances out of the home), because you need to let people know that you’re going to be checking into a rehabilitation program, or because you need to stop keeping secrets for your own sake. Try not to get upset if your family is not accepting and supportive at first. They may become so, given time. Be patient, and in the meantime, seek support and acceptance from friends and family who are able to give it, and from people in addiction recovery groups. Work on giving yourself emotional support and accepting yourself.

9. Don’t stop communicating.

As you progress through recovery, you will learn more and more about the factors that play into your substance use disorder, and what you need to do to continue avoiding addiction behaviors. Your mind will become clearer, and you will come to recognize both strengths and weaknesses in yourself that you may have denied in the past. Counseling sessions and support meetings will give you practice talking about yourself, thereby helping you learn to communicate more effectively to your family. There may be some people who prove to be unhealthy to talk to, and once you recognize this, allow yourself to keep quiet about your substance use disorder in their presence. But some people who struggle with the topic initially may eventually come through as a wonderful source of support. Talking about your substance use disorder with your family isn’t just a one-time event. It is a topic that you should revisit again and again over time. That doesn’t mean dwelling on the past or rehashing issues over and over, but it does mean being open about recovery, and giving your loved ones the opportunity to understand and support you—even if they were unable to initially. Share your ups and downs with them, and let them celebrate milestones with you.

10. Let them know how they can help you.

Even when a family member directly asks if they can help you in your recovery, it can be difficult to say yes. You may feel like you don’t deserve their help because you’ve hurt them so much in the past, or you may be scared to let your family share in your recovery process. It’s okay to be scared, but it’s also okay to push past that fear and accept, or even ask for help. Most, if not all, of your family already wants you to get better and be happy, and will be relieved to be given a way to help you heal.

Getting Treatment

If you are struggling with a substance use disorder, there are many treatment options available. Recovery usually begins with detox, as your body rids itself of toxic chemicals and begins the work of reversing physical dependence and healing the damage done by repeated substance use. A professional, medical detox is usually the best choice, as it will ensure your safety and comfort through the withdrawal process. You can find nearby detox centers by calling  800-996-6135(Who Answers?) or by searching our directory.

Addiction is a treatable disease, and years of research and practice have allowed experts to develop numerous evidence-based therapies that can help you break free from the prison of addiction, and reclaim your life. Medications can be a big help during detox, and sometimes throughout recovery. One on one, group, and family counseling are all vital tools for addiction treatment, as is behavioral therapy, which can teach you practical ways of changing your thoughts and behavior to better support a healthy lifestyle.

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