How To Talk To Someone With Addiction

It can be incredibly frustrating to try and talk to someone about their addictive behaviours and the impact they are having on their life and relationships. Often, you’ll be met with defensiveness, manipulation and deflections.

The first thing you need to know in order to make headway is that substance use disorder (SUD) is not caused by a person’s circumstances, like a relationship breakup, loss of a job, or other life stressor.

The progressive nature of SUD creates this illusion when substance use worsens after the life event. Initially, the increased use seems like a reasonable response to the situation. This is one of those slowly dawning awarenesses. Upon closer inspection, it’s evident that the person has been using substances to manage their stress for many years. In fact, most people with SUD report that their use began in their teenage years. Because of this, many developmental opportunities were missed.

While the rest of us navigated the stressors of life without substances, we were afforded the opportunity to develop tools for living, tools that allowed us to build resilience, character and the capacity to be uncomfortable. But the person with substance use disorder repeatedly turned to substances to soothe those same stressors, which reinforced their need to use substances to cope.

Shift Your Own Perspective of Addiction

It’s easy to be misled. The person with SUD is often convinced that their addictive behaviours are caused by their life circumstances. So, the first thing that needs to happen in order to speak effectively to the person with SUD is for you to shift your perspective.

Look back over the person’s life and you’ll see a pattern emerge of substance use in response to life’s challenges. It’s a profound and empowering shift in awareness when you’re able to see that the problems are actually coming from the person themself. You may recognize that they are no longer a victim, unlucky or powerless.

Convincing the ‘Broken Brain’

Now that the problem has been identified, change can begin.

Because the person with SUD has a neurobiological illness, they will have great difficulty seeing themselves with clarity. This is why so many people report feeling incredibly frustrated and/or giving up on the person with SUD. It’s so tricky to convince the ‘broken’ brain that the problem is coming from SUD and not external circumstances.

This is where you come in.

Love and Support… Essential, But Not Enough

Unfortunately, love and support alone won’t cure an addiction.

Take a moment to review how long you’ve been providing love and support to the person with SUD and notice how your efforts have not resulted in improvement. Likely your efforts have caused you to suffer as well.

Because SUD is a chronic condition, it will consistently get worse, sometimes slower, sometimes faster depending on the substances being used.

As a family member, it’s essential to understand the dynamics of the family system and the ways that some of the responses to the trauma of addiction allow the illness to progress. Sometimes subtly and sometimes profoundly, the entire family system is impacted by SUD and requires support, education and healing to move forward together.

Your instincts to comfort and help your loved one are beautiful and a natural response when someone is suffering. However, we see many family members diminished physically, emotionally and spiritually as they struggle with patterned responses to active addiction.

Let Go Of Power Struggle

Set yourself up for a successful conversation by never getting into a position where you’re trying to prove to the person with SUD that they are dependent on drugs and alcohol. This creates a power struggle and distraction from the problem.

Simply state, repeatedly, your experience of their behaviour and how it impacts you, your hope for their future, your willingness to do whatever is necessary to support their recovery, and your unwillingness to do anything that supports their SUD. It goes without saying that this conversation needs to happen when the person is not under the influence.

Finding the Right Words

Something simple and heartfelt like “I love you and it breaks my heart to see you destroying your life” is very effective in breaking through denial and opening up communication.

“I hope you’ll choose life. I understand that ultimately you choose how you live but I need you to know that I can no longer be part of this destruction. It’s too painful for me.”

“You have a treatable illness. Millions of people have gotten into recovery.”

If they push back with manipulative statements like “you don’t love me” or “if you really loved me, you would…”, let them know that this is what real love looks like. It makes difficult decisions, takes a leadership position, and sets healthy boundaries. Restate your willingness to do anything to support their recovery and nothing to support their addiction.

This is not an ultimatum or manipulation technique; it’s a simple fact.

Embrace Your Own Healing

Family members can be powerful motivators of change. In order to develop the resilience to hold to your integrity and boundaries in the midst of the crisis of active addiction, participation in a support network is critical.

By embracing your own healing first, you’ll naturally disengage from the enabling system of active addiction. When recovery behaviours are incorporated into the family system, you’ll be able to invite your loved one into the support of a resilient, recovery-oriented family system. As the system changes, a new normal is introduced that has the potential to break generational patterns of substance use disorder.

As family members you can take a leadership position and let your loved one know that there is an array of solutions, from free peer groups to intensive outpatient programs to residential treatment, all designed specifically for the problem the person with SUD has.

Here, you’ll need to do your own work to gain support and process the greatest fear many families face: losing your loved one to addiction. By gaining awareness about what you can and cannot control, you’ll be able to focus on the choices that empower you to live your best life while modelling recovery-oriented behaviours for your loved one.

Family members that embrace their own healing have the ability to differentiate the authentic voice of their loved one from the voice of addiction.

When Families Heal First

At Aurora Recovery Centre, we spend a significant amount of time working with families to enable them to speak to their loved one in an effective manner. Introducing recovery into the family system has profound effects and, while it may feel counterintuitive to embrace your healing first, it’s truly the way to make significant changes.

We recognize that addiction has a profoundly negative impact on families, and that healing those families is the most powerful way to effect change. Introducing recovery principles to your family creates significant, lasting change.

We’ve seen remarkable results when families embrace their own personal journey. Connecting with others having similar experiences fractures the isolation commonly experienced in families living with active substance use disorder.

“Families First” is a strategic approach to addiction recovery, one that has been researched and proven to significantly impact positive outcomes.

Incremental adjustments and adaptations within the family system lead to profound psychological, emotional, and spiritual losses. The family living in active addiction organizes around the crisis, rather than their mutual values. These coping strategies play a part in keeping the cycle of addiction going and parallel the progression of substance use disorder or process addiction.

Free Addiction Recovery Education and Support Group

Aurora Recovery Centre offers a FREE weekly group to provide support and education about addiction recovery. In this group we encourage ~ empathize ~ educate and empower you.

Facilitated by our family program director, Donna Low ~ CCAC, Certified Satir Family Systems Transformational Therapy, this group builds connections that fracture the isolation commonly experienced in families living with active substance use disorder.

Donna has designed and facilitated several of Canada’s premier family programs for many years, and her ability to bring genuine compassion and expertise to her work creates the perfect environment for healing.

If you are interested in joining us online via Zoom on Sundays from 10:30am-12:00pm (CDT) contact Marlyna at for the Zoom link.

With expert help, the cycle of addiction can be broken.