Many complicated emotions can surround addiction. There can be grief, anger, and regret over lost opportunities and relationships. Often there is shame and embarrassment concerning your reputation and how you stand with others, especially those who may have been impacted directly or indirectly by the substance abuse. 

Similar emotions can emerge for those who love someone with substance use disorder. Sadness about their loved one’s condition and guilt about what they could have or should have done may weigh on them. These emotions can make it difficult to discuss substance abuse with those outside of the situation. 

To Disclose or Not to Disclose?

There are many reasons you might not want to disclose your personal experiences with substance use disorder. Much of this trepidation can probably be attributed to stigma. Stigma is a set of negative beliefs about someone with substance use disorder that can change how they treat that person. This stigma is perpetuated by a lack of awareness about the realities of addiction and the widespread prevalence of incorrect information. 

When someone mistakenly believes that, while living with substance abuse, you are actively making that decision and choosing to use substances to the detriment of your life, it can cause that person to view you very negatively. For many people, there is no distinction between stereotypes and reality, and this can lead to ostracization if you are actually living the day-to-day truth of addiction.

Stigma can be exemplified when addiction is compared to a condition like cancer. If someone were to have cancer, they might hesitate to disclose their condition for a variety of reasons. Although, they most likely are not worrying that other people will blame them for their diagnosis. In society, cancer does not make you a bad person, whereas addiction can, unfortunately, point to critical moral and character failings. In reality, both conditions are chronic health conditions that do not reveal anything about your morality.

Despite this stigma, talking about your substance abuse and how it has impacted you or your experience with a loved one living with addiction can have several benefits. Perhaps you have been absent from social functions lately without explanation, or you have been more tired and less productive at work. In this case, you might want to explain what has been going on and how it has been impacting your ability to be present for those types of outings or to be “yourself” at work. 

These situations can come up whether you have been caring for your loved one with addiction or struggling with the highs and lows of addiction firsthand. Talking directly about the situation could be a way of preserving strained relationships by replacing any confusion with honesty and open communication. 

Being open and clear with others about the reality of living with substance use disorder can go a long way in reducing the grip stigma has on society.

How to Have the Conversation 

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide if, how, and when to disclose about your substance use. Here are some tips to help you in that process:

  • If there are multiple people you would like to tell, start with the person you feel will be the most understanding. This can give you more confidence going forward.
  • Choose a time and place without other distractions and stressors.
  • When talking to someone that your addiction may have negatively impacted, frame your substance abuse as an explanation rather than an excuse. Addiction can cause many behaviors you would not normally engage in, and that explanation provides essential context, but it does not excuse the reality of what may have happened. This can keep the other person from becoming agitated.
  • Be prepared for confusion. This might be very new for some people not familiar with addiction, and their lack of understanding does not necessarily equal judgment.
  • Bring a support person to the conversation who can help you if things go awry or simply help you feel more comfortable.
  • If you are discussing a loved one’s condition, you should consider running it by them first. There are some exceptions to this, such as when you are seeking guidance for intervention.

Being on the Other Side

If you are the person to whom someone is disclosing, you have an important role to play. This conversation is something that your friend or loved one has most likely thought over considerably, and it is an important moment for them. It also means that you are important to them, because they want you to know something very vulnerable about them. Here are some tips for how to navigate this situation:

  • Remain nonjudgmental. “Why did you start using drugs?” “Why did you wait so long to get treatment?” “Why didn’t you tell me before that you had a problem with alcohol?” These types of questions can put someone on the spot and bring up the dichotomy of right and wrong, which is not helpful at this moment.
  • Avoid stigmatizing language. Words like “addict” or “junkie” have strong negative connotations and should not be used. A good rule of thumb is to follow the other person’s lead and use the type of language they use and are comfortable with.
  • Be open to learning. If you are not familiar with substance abuse, there is a lot you may not understand. That is okay. Ask open-ended questions from a place of nonjudgmental curiosity and seek out resources to learn more for future conversations.
  • Thank them for sharing. This is a significant part of their life they have trusted you with. It is important to let them know this has not negatively impacted your relationship and you still care for them.

Dealing with the everyday impact of substance abuse in the family is difficult enough without the complication of stigma. Stigma can make it harder for people to get help when they truly need it. It keeps people silent, and that silence then reinforces the stigma, giving it more power. In reality, stigma is ignorance. The ignorance of other people does not mean that you or your loved one does not deserve help. At Family-Centered Services, we understand that addiction is far from a choice. It is a serious but treatable disease. Our licensed clinicians utilize evidence-based methods to treat this illness and help get you and your family back on track to a healthy future. Our services include intervention education and preparation, individual and family therapy, a Family Recovery Program, and sober accountability. Reach out to FCS at (509) 991-5822 to learn how we can work together.