Chances are that if you’re not an alcoholic yourself, it’s not easy to determine what to say to someone who struggles with addiction—whether they are in recovery or not.
Alcoholics in active addiction tend to be defensive of their actions, and even more so when someone confronts them about those actions and the role that alcohol plays. Due to this defensive nature, it can be difficult to sit down and have a conversation with them about their drinking habits.
On the flip side, it can also be hard to approach a conversation about alcoholism with an alcoholic in recovery, for fear of saying the wrong thing or offending them in some way.
Based on personal experience, I’ve learned there are certain things you should and should not say in order to get the most out of a well-meaning conversation with someone who has a problem with alcohol or is in recovery from alcoholism.
The following are guidelines for engaging in conversation when you are concerned about someone’s drinking or simply wanting to understand more.
What to say to an alcoholic in active use:
“I’m concerned about you because _______.”
When approaching a conversation with someone in active use, it’s important to have concrete examples to back up your statements of concern. Simply saying “I am concerned about you” isn’t likely to impact an addict or alcoholic because there is no reasoning behind the statement. However, with a solid example, they may be more likely to take what you have to say to heart.
“If you continue to drink, we can’t _________.”
Sometimes alcoholics need an ultimatum in order to understand what’s really at stake because of their drinking. While this may not always help them see the reality of the situation immediately, they may begin to think about what you said over time, and it could eventually play a role in them deciding to get help for their drinking.
“I will be here when you decide you’re ready to get help.”
Most alcoholics aren’t going to be ready to get help when others in their lives would like them to do so. Because of this, you may have to remove yourself from an alcoholic’s life until they are ready to admit to having a problem. However, this does not mean you should shun them forever. Make it known that while you are going to distance yourself now, you will be available when they decide to get their life together.
What to say to an alcoholic in recovery:
“I’m here if you want to talk.”
When I was new to sobriety and recovery, this phrase meant the world to me. Just knowing that someone was there when and if I was ready to talk about getting sober was a calming feeling. It made me feel less alone to know someone was available to talk to, but also made me feel like I had some grasp of control over the conversation because it would be when I was ready.
“I am proud of you.”
These five words can make a world of difference for someone in recovery. Just knowing that someone else sees the effort you are making and appreciates it can set a positive tone for sobriety and let you know that while this may be your journey, you are far from alone in it. Knowing other people are investing in your well-being is an irreplaceable feeling.
“Are you OK with _______?”
Whether we are going to a party, or simply a restaurant, it feels good when people stop to take a moment and make sure I will be comfortable in an atmosphere where not everyone will be sober. Even though I have the tools to speak up if I feel uncomfortable, someone asking this question first shows that they are paying attention and care about my life choices.
“Are you willing to tell me about why you no longer drink?”
I feel better telling people about my life choices when they ask kindly rather than demand a reason. If someone asked for more information about the reasoning behind my choices, I would never refuse to tell them more. I enjoy talking about recovery and what got me to where I am in sobriety, and spreading that message is important. However, when people phrase it like, “So are you, like, an alcoholic?” it sounds judgmental and makes me not want to elaborate. As with much of the content in conversations, it’s all about how you approach a topic.
Though every person and situation is different, these suggestions provide a starting point when opening to doors of discussion surrounding alcoholism. When it comes down to it, a successful conversation is about being kind and empathetic without enabled destructive behavior to continue.