In 1989, my father and sister had a talk with me because they were concerned that I had an alcohol and drug problem. This was before the show Intervention became a big hit on A&E, but at a time when addiction treatment was taking off in this country. I’ll admit I was drinking and using drugs heavily at the time and had been for a few years. I was also struggling with some severe emotional problems and had failed out of college at the end of my junior year in large part due to my heavy substance use.

I was troubled in many ways. To some, I’m sure my life looked like a complete train wreck, but the thought of not drinking seemed far worse to me. So there I was, duped into going to see my Dad with my sister. I had strained relationships with both of them, but it was Christmastime and my sister and I were both home for the holidays, so I had agreed we would pay my father an obligatory holiday visit together.

As we were sitting talking with my father, without warning my sister began telling him what she had witnessed when visiting me at college for a weekend. She talked about my heavy drinking and drug use. She told him that I was promiscuous in rather embarrassing detail, and then proceeded to explain how she was certain I had a severe problem with alcohol and drugs, and that I very well may be an alcoholic.

I was mortified. Waves of hurt, anger, and betrayal washed over me. She told him things I had told her in confidence. And while I’m certain she felt like somehow this was helping me, all it did was make me feel more alone than I ever had in my life. I did not speak to or see my father again for 6 months, and I didn’t talk to my sister again for even longer. I became severely depressed. I felt like my life was over. They believed that I was a lush, an addict and a whore, and now my only option was to swear off alcohol and drugs forever. The thing is, now I felt like they were the only things I had left that brought me any pleasure at all.

That was more than 30 years ago and while I’m long since over it, my relationship with my family is still strained to this day.  It’s so important for families to know that there are things that you can say that can never be unsaid. They become permanently burned into the memory of your loved one and color the relationship from that day forward. So when talking with a loved about what you feel is their substance use problem, here are some guidelines that will help you to express your concerns without damaging the relationship and driving your loved one farther away.

If you’ve seen the show Intervention, then you’ve seen the general consensus among treatment professionals and our society of how you should approach someone you feel has a drug or alcohol problem. The substance user is lured into a situation where they are confronted by close family and/or friends and sometimes a professional interventionist, and are then told about how “bad” they are behaving. This may include the way they act while high or drinking, how their behavior has affected their loved ones, and how scared everyone is for their safety.

In many cases these meetings escalate quickly to shouting, name calling, crying and usually end abruptly with the substance user walking out. Please try to envision a scared cat that you and a few of your friends have backed into a corner. Whether it’s 2 people talking to you or more, that’s exactly what it feels like to the substance user. You’ve backed him into a corner and his instinct is to fight and escape. So, if you are concerned about your loved one’s substance use, and you suspect it’s to a level that is harmful, here are a few tips to keep the conversation productive and help all parties to feel safe and heard:

  1. Your concerns are your personal opinion and are based on your limited perspective. As much as you may think you know about this person and their current troubles, it’s a serious mistake to assume that their substance use is causing their problems, no matter how obvious it seems to you. You are not in your loved one’s mind. You can’t possibly know what they are thinking, what motivates them and why they are acting as they are. Just assume there are things you don’t know.
  2. 2. Ask questions. And be genuinely curious. You can ask general questions such as “How are things going?” or “Are you happy?” Or you can ask about specific circumstances or situations that you know about — “How are things going at work?” “How are things going with your boyfriend/girlfriend these days?” Whatever you ask, be curious and really listen to the answers. This is how you can develop a trusting relationship with this person. You have to be able to talk about these kinds of things first. Oftentimes the substance use may come up in these kinds of conversations, but let the substance user bring it up first.
  3. Stick to things you know firsthand. A big mistake many people make with these situations is to make judgments about the individual and their substance use based on second and third hand information. If you’ve ever played the telephone game when you were a kid, you know that with each person that passes on information, the story gets skewed based on the interpretations, embellishments and misunderstandings of those conveying the information. This means if you heard from someone that your son was drunk at a bar and started a fight, but you didn’t see it with your own eyes, you likely didn’t hear the whole story, and your son will let you know that if you bring it up. In other words, if you bring it up to try and convince your son that fight is evidence he needs help, because you don’t have firsthand knowledge of it, he will point out the discrepancies and discount your assertion that he has a problem all together.
  4. Maximize kindness, minimize drama. Whenever things seemed to be at their worst my father would always say, “Now is not the time to panic.” This turns out to be perfect advice for talking to someone you fear has a serious drug and/or alcohol problem. Even if this person has harmed you directly with her/her actions, or maybe they’ve survived a recent overdose, or are now in some kind of legal trouble, now is not the time to panic. You may be terrified; you may be really angry; or you may feel sad and defeated, but your loved one is still alive and that means there truly is hope for his/her future and the future of your relationship. When talking with your loved one about the most recent problems, treat it more like a business meeting but with kindness and love. Help them find solutions to the immediate issues and then when the time is right (which means when things have settled down and the crisis is nearly passed) calmly and without judgment mention that perhaps they may be happier making a chance in their substance use.
  5. Treat people as you wish to be treated. Yes, the Golden Rule. There is a reason it is taught in every major religion of the world. It’s probably the best advice you can be given with respect to building and maintaining positive relationships, yet it’s the one that seems to go out the window the fastest when you’re dealing with someone you feel has a substance use problem. Think to yourself, if I was struggling with this problem, how would I want to be approached? How would I want to be treated by those I love and who love me? Then do that.

Remember, you want to talk with this person in the first place because you’re concerned for their safety, and you also may be concerned about how they’ve been treating you. These are valid reasons. It’s most important to understand that your loved one is not out of control. Their substance use is voluntary, and they are using at their current level for their own personal reasons. They believe they are getting benefits from their substance use or they would stop doing it. And the truth is, the vast majority of people do change their substance use habits — even of those who are the heaviest users, most do change eventually.

What’s important to understand is they don’t change because they are forced into it; they change because they come to believe they can be happier making a change. If you want them to come to that conclusion, then it starts with working to build a trusting relationship built on mutual respect.

If you would like more information about The Freedom Model’s non confrontational approach to talking with a loved one, you can download our Free e-book here or purchase our full text, The Freedom Model for the Family at www.TheFreedomModel.org.

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