Let’s name it: 2020 has brought at least some level of despair to, well, everyone. We’ve all felt heightened levels of isolation, economic hardship, and grief (if you haven’t, please DM us with your secret). We “cope” a million different ways—with shopping sprees, incessant Instagram scrolling and One Tree Hill reruns. And often, many of us resort to over-consuming alcohol and drugs for a momentary reprieve.
In fact, statistics show that, now more than ever, people are turning to—and overusing—substances and destructive behaviors for “relief.” (The American Medical Association notes that more than 40 states have reported increased rates of substance abuse and overdose this year.) If this sounds like someone you know and love, you are not alone. And if you’re at a loss for what to say, we’re with you there, too.
For guidance on how to talk to a friend struggling with substance use disorder (SUD), we sat down with recovery coach and interventionist Frances Murchison, sober for over 30 years. She reminds us that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for SUD, nor a definitive manual on how to support a friend battling addiction. That said, there is universal importance in being intentional with our language. As with any conflict, we grow when we communicate with compassion, empathy, and love and without prescriptiveness, blame or shame. And while Murchison primarily recommends seeking professional help, she does offer us a framework for these conversations. Here, seven helpful things you can say to a friend who is struggling with SUD—plus two you should probably avoid.
7 Things You Can Definitely Say
1. I’m here for you.
People struggling with SUD often turn to substances to numb feelings of isolation and victimization, so it’s essential to start the conversation with your presence and without judgment. The challenge, urges Murchison, is to do it with boundaries. As family or friends, we risk a tendency to take it all on, unintentionally assuming the role of therapist, counselor and cheerleader. Practice self-care by setting boundaries for yourself and knowing your emotional bandwidth. Decide you’ll connect over one meal, two morning walks, one hourlong phone call a week. (You write the formula.)
2. I sense that you are struggling.
With love and gentleness, recount a few instances where you observed some risky behavior. Identifying patterns is great, and specifics are best. Another cautionary tale from Murchison: Be very careful of shaming and blaming. Cite examples that help illustrate your concern without inducing embarrassment or guilt.
3. Do you believe you’re struggling? Do you think alcohol/drugs are making your life unmanageable?
As any interpersonal communication expert will tell us, asking questions is essential. Listening is too. The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous states, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” We know the thought of suggesting AA right off the bat might sound daunting (although we can assure you, it’s an amazing resource and a pretty low-hanging fruit). So before you encourage a 12-step program, simply ask the question.
4. I’m struggling.
Whether your friend answers those questions with yes or no, she can’t argue with how you’re feeling about her behavior. It’s what we call “I language” and, we must admit, it works every time. To ensure honest and productive communication, we abide by the formula of “When you ___, I assume ___, which makes me feel ___.” Or, more simply, “When you ___, I feel ___.” This method displaces blame and shame, resting ownership and vulnerability (which, according to our girl Brené Brown, is our *courage*) on us. Try it.
5. Do you want to get help?
We’re back to the whole asking questions and listening thing. Posing this question in an open-minded, objective way sets a nonjudgmental foundation that’s crucial for any productive change. If her answer is no, honor her choice and vow your support whenever she’s ready. If her answer is yes, read on…
6. How can I support you?
Ideally, says Murchison, you’d tailor this question a bit. For example, try: How can I support you in your journey to get well? This allows your friend to speak freely, keeps her accountable to her own desire to overcome the challenges she’s facing and allows you to uphold the boundaries you’ve set. If she’s receptive to help, but unsure where to begin, scroll down. We’ve laid out a few of Murchison’s go-to resources below.
7. I believe you can do this.
Without question, empowerment will be the most effective tactic in your conversations (which, by the way, is always true…). Seeking a sober life takes courage, perseverance, and hope. Again, Murchison suggests citing specific examples: When have you witnessed bravery in your friend? When have you witnessed grit? Empower her with these memories and remind her she can return to that true version of herself. And don’t forget where we started—that you’ll walk alongside her, all the way.
2 Statements That Aren’t Helpful
1. Let’s grab a drink.
We know, we know. This sounds obvious. You’d be surprised, though, how much our social lives revolve around drinking (in particular). Take it from Murchison, who’s been sober “wining & dining” for a long time. Even the most perceptive friends can be quite unconscious when socializing. Suggesting activities and venues that are substance-focused isolate your friend and normalize the behavior—both of which we want to avoid.
2. You don’t seem like an addict!
(…Or, for that matter, “You seem like an addict!”)
Remember that whole “I language” thing? Kicking off a sentence with “You” is simply an invitation for your friend to stop listening. And, reminder: We want to avoid prescriptive, blaming and shaming tones at all costs. The truth is, we can’t define another human’s experience, no matter how beloved. And when it comes to addiction, we’re even less entitled to that kind of prescription. According to Murchison, even recovery coaches and interventionists avoid this kind of language when addressing SUD. Instead, the goal is that, via 12-step programs and community support, your friend will define this—or not—for herself.
Lean on These Resources
Ultimately, none of us can go at this alone (which is, perhaps, our tagline for 2020). For those struggling with SUD, and for those supporting loved ones who are suffering, Murchison shares a few of her go-to resources.
– Consider AA. Many locations offer open meetings, where all are welcome (yes, you!). Because of COVID, you can attend a virtual meeting any hour, any day. Check out Google’s Recover Together for more info.
– And if you’re curious about Al Anon or Nar Anon, designed to provide help and hope specifically for families and friends of addicts, check out Courage to Change: One Day at a Time in Al-Anon.
– Listen to a few inspiring TED Talks on recovery, curated by A Sober Girls Guide.
– Begin or end the day with a few minutes of meditation. Insight Timer features many amazing options for addiction and sobriety.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, we encourage you to seek professional help. SAMHSA’s National Helpline (800-662-4357) is a confidential, free, 24/7/365 service providing support and referrals to treatment facilities and information groups.