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How to talk to an addict all depends on where they are at in the stages of change. The first stage of change is called pre-contemplation. Most addicts and alcoholics are not at this stage. When you are faced with an addict in the precontemplation stage you will find they are in complete denial and see no need for change. To help an addict move out of the precontemplation stage they need to see the consequences of their addiction and behaviors. In clinical terms, this is called ambivalence. This occurs when the addict is able to recognize there are problems and starts to look at those problems and possible solutions to them.
This brings us to the contemplation stage. At this stage, the addict will start to weigh the pros and cons of continued behavior and substance use. As professionals, we have found that just talking to them can be ineffective as the substance user will make decisions based on their maladaptive coping strategies. In other words, they often will choose the path of least resistance to solve those problems. Families are often able to change their behaviors of enabling and codependency. In doing so this can help the addict become accountable for their actions. What often occurs as a result of this strategy is the addict often makes changes much quicker and more effectively. Your loved one is more likely to see the problem and attempt to change when it is their problem and not yours. Consequences and accountability do help people look at things differently.
What Does Denial in Addiction Look Like?
Denial can be outright refusal to believe there is an issue. It can also be recognizing there may be a problem and their problems aren’t that bad. Comparisons to others who have lost more than they have is a common justification and manipulation to themselves and others. Many alcoholics feel they do not have a problem because they are still employed. An addict addicted to opiates may think they are justified because of legitimate physical pain and they aren’t junkies because the medication was prescribed by a doctor. A common denominator behavior in most alcoholics and addicts is the thought that every problem is somebody else’s fault. Many are also in denial that they need professional help and believe they can fix any problem themselves. Below are a few examples of denial:
- They are resentful of many people, places, and things.
- Believing help is not needed and when help is needed the addict or alcoholic believes they can solve the problem themselves and does not need treatment.
- All their problems are the result of everyone and everything other than themselves.
- They use drugs or alcohol to get back at other people (Hurting people hurt other people).
- They minimize their substance use. The most common is they try to convince everyone it’s just marijuana and it’s legal now.
- They downplay their use. They say they only drank a couple of beers when they drank far more than that.
- They are still holding a job, therefore, there is no problem.
- They have no legal issues
- They still have financial resources
- Their wife, husband, partner or significant other hasn’t left yet.
In regards to holding a job. We have found that even those that go to work every day and on time are still not hiding their problems as much as they or their families want to believe. We have spoken to the supervisors of some of the best employees who are alcoholics. Never once has one of them come back and said they were stunned or shocked. They all knew, they just didn’t say anything. Every one of them has been on board with them taking a leave of absence for treatment. Addicts and alcoholics use their job as a barometer. As long as they are shining from 9-5 they can self-destruct from 5-9. This often averages itself out with justification and allows the alcoholic or addict to believe things are not that bad. They are using the job to hide the severity of their problem.
How to Talk to an Addict in Denial
For starters, leave this up to the professionals. Families who are often in the line of fire with the addict don’t get very far. Talking to an addict often ends with promises by the addict that will be broken and false hope from the family that things will get better. As professionals we know in order to move through the stages of change there has to be ambivalence; seeing the need for change v.s staying the same. Talking in and of itself rarely accomplishes the leap forward. The addict has to have accountability. If the addict is unwilling to change, the family can talk with their feet and not their lips. When a family changes behaviors that results in accountability for the addict, it allows for their loved one to see things differently and consider change. It is most effective to leave the talking and the guidance to the professionals. You would never attempt to treat any other medical condition by yourself, please do not start with addiction.
What to Say and What Not to Say
- Discuss how their behavior makes you feel: The keyword here is feel. People can argue with your opinion. It is far less likely they will argue with your emotions. When talking to an addict try to consider directing the conversation to how you feel and not what they are doing. When you turn it into an opinion you put them on the defensive.
- Try to Engage Them while Sober: For many, this can be difficult. Remember, their perception and behaviors are the problem. Even when they are not using substances they are still unwell. However, in certain situations, it can be helpful to approach them when they are not under the influence. Addiction is driven by behaviors so you may still get strong reactions regardless as to whether or not they are under the influence of substances. There are times when they are under the influence they may be agreeable to enter treatment. This is always a case by case basis and this is why you should be allowing a professional to guide you.
- Reiterate that you love them and feel it may be time for professional help: It is always good to have these conversations. One of the biggest assets you will gain from encouraging them to seek help without pushing the issue is preparing yourself for the manipulation when you bring in a professional interventionist. During a professional intervention meeting, one of the biggest excuses for declining help is them telling you that you went about this the wrong way. They will say that if you would have just come to them first then they would have accepted help and since you pulled this stunt they are not going. Another good reason to have this talk is because, in some rare instances, they may break down and enter treatment. When they don’t you will then have something to work with at the intervention.
- Berate or Blame them and tell them what they need to do: Although addicts love to make everything all about themselves, this backfires when conversations are all about them and what they did wrong. These conversations spiral out of control quickly and their first thought is they are this way because of you. Furthermore, the second you start off the conversation with telling them what they need to do, they are immediately on the defensive and are ready to blast you with all of your faults. They will then flip the script and unload on you about what you need to do.
- Talk to them While Intoxicated: This is not always an option and when able it can be a better option. When the addict is abusing alcohol it may be best to wait until they are either abstinent or far less intoxicated. Approaching a severely intoxicated individual does not often end well. This also applies to other substances of choice. It may be very difficult to approach an opiate addict falling asleep or a methamphetamine abuser fresh of recent use who is erratic and full of energy. Utilizing professional intervention guidance on the best time and place to approach the substance user is always a more effective strategy.
- Make Excuses or be Soft About the Issue: It is never a good idea to flip the script for them, they will do that anyway. They have an illusion of control over the family and when the family makes excuses for them it gives them a stronger illusion of that control. Making excuses also prevents them from seeing the need for change and takes away their accountability. It also feeds into their belief that their problems are the fault of other people, places, and things. When setting boundaries, there is no need to be soft. You’re allowed to change your position. Sending the message that you will not be swayed or manipulated any longer is a choice you as a family are allowed to make. The addict is allowed to live the life they choose. The affected family and friends have an equal right to live the life they choose. Being soft exposes your vulnerability and allows the addict to believe your boundaries are weak, can be broken, and are less than real.
Next Steps to Take
Moving a substance user through the stages of change is best accomplished with professional guidance. Families often get farther with their loved one by changing their behaviors that impact the addict’s comfort level. Talking alone to your loved one often produces little to no effect. In order for a person to consider change and engage in change talk, they have to see the benefits of change are greater than the consequences of staying the same. For many addicts, they see treatment as a negative or a consequence in that they will somehow give up their illusion of control. When a family engages with a professional interventionist that is able to work with both the substance user and the family it increases the likelihood the substance user will see a need to do something different and effective.
The next steps are to stop thinking or believing you will make your loved one do something different simply because you feel you had a productive talk. Although these talks at times can be helpful, they often result in inaction on the addict’s part.
Find the Right Intervention Program for you and your Family
At Family First Intervention, we recognize that not all intervention programs are designed or created equal. There are many wonderful interventionists who will come out and talk to your loved one. How many actually prepare the addict’s family for their recovery? How many actually support the family after the intervention when the real trials and tribulations will occur. The answer is, not many. Most interventionists treat an intervention as a rehearsal and 12 Step call in an attempt to talk your loved one into accepting treatment.
Addiction affects the family and just about anyone else the substance user comes into contact with. Addressing only the substance use addresses only a small part of the problem. We know that not every family that calls will be ready to move forward. We also know that not every family member will be on the same page nor will they be ready to hear that they would greatly benefit from changing themselves. The intervention company should put your needs first and meet you where you’re at as a family. One of their many goals should be moving your family into their own recovery and reducing your reactivity to the substance user.
Families that are not ready to address their part will still benefit from starting the intervention process if they were to keep an open mind about addressing behaviors they can change. Please remember that if you’re hiring someone that is just going to talk your loved one into treatment, that is not a professional service and you should not pay for that. They offer such a service through Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s called a 12 step call.