11- Constructive Communications
Talking with an addict is hard. In the grips of the disease of addiction, they will be alert to any threat to their drug use and they use all sorts of mechanisms to deny or justify their behavior, which makes it difficult for family members to talk to them. But family members are in a position where their manner of constructive communication can encourage their addicted loved one to confront their disease and become willing to get clean. Here are some suggestions on how to build such constructive communications.
- Non-productive communications
- Effective communication tools
- Basics of communicating with an addict
When talking with an addict it is easy to say the wrong things, and so hurt the chance for open and free communication. As family members, we naturally want to do the right thing – we want to say the right thing. But the situation is stressful, and our anger and anxiety can lead us to talk to the addict in ways that are counter productive.
What follows is a list of some common stances family members take when talking to their addicted loved one that have proved to be detrimental and ineffective:
When you take the attitude that you are always right and the addict is always wrong, you get nowhere. Try to avoid conversations in which one party is bound to win and the other bound to lose. Keep in mind that you are dealing with someone you love, so try to find the common ground you share with the addict. Remember that the addict is suffering, and is not trying to harm those in the family.
One sure way of cutting off communication is by blaming the addict for all the ills of the family. Though the addict is responsible for creating distress, it is not fair to blame them for everything that’s wrong in the lives of every member of the family. Blaming the addict will only make him defensive and more determined to insist he has no problem with drugs. In fact, blaming the addict gives him one more excuse to use drugs, since he now feels persecuted. To imagine that the addict is the cause of all your problems is false, and shows that you as a family member has lost sight of reality. That the addict’s behavior is a source of distress and sadness to his family is undeniable, but to jump from that to making him the scapegoat for the family’s shortcomings is unfair and unhelpful. Of course, such blame is sure to make the addict resentful and much less likely to engage in honest discourse with anyone in the family.
We are all responsible for ourselves, for how we conduct our lives, and for pursuing our own happiness. This is so regardless of whether we have a daughter or son or a parent or a spouse addicted to drugs. But feeling for ourselves is a common human failing — and who has more reason to feel sorry for themselves than those of us dealing with an addict? In fact, though, it is no excuse, and there are consequences to imagining that we are miserable because of someone else. When we act the victim and point the finger at the addict, we make it difficult to have any kind of communication with him. Apart from this, playing the martyr means we will never be happy until the addict gets better, which is a common pitfall among family members dealing with addiction.
No one likes to be criticized, and the addict in your family is no exception. Belittling them, calling them bad, weak or inadequate, is a sure way of provoking an angry reaction. No matter how much you think the criticisms are valid, they will serve only to drive the addict deeper into his shell. Better to look for the positives in the situation, even though they may at times be hard to discern.
Giving up on the addict may seem the only way. After all your efforts to get through to the addict have failed, you may decide that he is a hopeless case and that it is best to stop talking to him. Your hopelessness, though, is likely a result of your efforts to get the addict to change his behavior, to stop using drugs. In those regards, your efforts are likely hopeless, since only the addict can decide when it’s time to stop. But you do yourself and the addict a disservice to shut them out. There is hope of recovery, remember that. Thousands upon thousands of addicts who were deep in their addiction now live drug free. This is a fact. So don’t give into hopelessness, which will only hurt you, while also conveying to the addict that they are failures doomed to a life of addiction.
Be honest with the addict regarding what you expect of him. Simply saying we deserve better, that we are entitled to be better treatment, but not letting them know how we would like to be treated is dishonest and will get us nowhere. Though we cannot control the addict’s drug use, though we cannot get them to stop, we can be honest and let them know how their disease is affecting us and what we do not find acceptable behavior. Honesty is always the best policy in dealing with the addict. Though we don’t want to blame or criticize, it is appropriate to tell the addict when his behavior makes us angry or hurt or fearful. When the addict knows he can depend on the family member to be truthful and open, he will more likely respond with honesty. Simply put, pretending you are not angry, hurt or affected when you are creates confusion and distrust.
7. Passive aggressive
Putting, withdrawing, or refusing to talk with the addict is self-defeating. We get angry, of course, in dealing with the bad behavior of the addict. Because we are angry we want to punish, so we give the addict the silent treatment. But we are hurting ourselves too, and our punishing treatment of the addict is doing him no good either. Though it can be difficult, try not to take the misbehavior of the addict personally. The addict is in the grip of a terrible disease and has no more control over it than if he was suffering from any other disease. The point is there is no reason to punish them.
Addiction hits families indiscriminately, so there is no reason to imagine that you have done something wrong to bring the disease into your home. You are not a terrible person who has brought down this suffering on a loved one. In fact, try to banish blame of yourself or anyone else from your mind. If you are able to do this, you will be much more contented and clear thinking. In such a frame of mind you will be able to communicate with the addict more effectively.
By always solving their problems, instead of allowing them to take responsibility for the consequences of their addiction we family members set up a destructive dynamic. Letting the addict experience the pain of their life of drug use is the best thing you can do for them. This may be hard to believe, but it has been demonstrated again and again. Treat the addict in your family like a responsible adult, and they are more likely to start acting responsibility. Treat them like a child, and they will never be free of an unhealthy dependence on you – or on their drugs.
Nobody is perfect, though some of us find that hard to admit when we are dealing with an addict whose behavior is so obviously destructive. But refusing to admit your wrongdoings, mistakes or faults – while always pointing the finger of blame – will shut the door on any chance the addict will want to talk with you.
Think before you speak is a good guiding principle. When we jump to respond to the addict’s every word and action with criticism, we are shutting off hope of a dialogue.
Being unwilling to let go of past hurts will make it difficult to open up lines of communication with the addict. Remember that the addict is a sick person, and try to have compassion for them. Holding on to grudges and bringing up old grievances is no way to forge a relationship with the addict. Instead, deal with today, and look forward to tomorrow.
Effective communication tools
It is easy to be at war with the addict in our lives. We spend our time and energy focusing on their destructive behavior, and the pain and distress it causes the family. We never tire of listing for the addict all the ways their behavior hurts them and us. We may come to believe that if the addict were only to get better, our lives would be problem-free. But such thinking is a symptom that we have come under the destructive spell of the disease of addiction. The quality of our lives is hurt, but it’s not the addict that is to blame. By a misapprehension regarding the addict and his addiction, we put our life’s energy into the fruitless mission of beating this disease. But if we can take a step back and view the addict with perspective, we can start to free ourselves of the painful consequences of our efforts to control the disease. When we find clarity on the nature of addiction – and our limitations in controlling it – we can deal with the addict in ways that lead to a healthy relationship. When we let go of the fiction that we can change the addict and get him to stop using drugs, we can build a relationship based on reality and free of rancor and blame and the like.
Here are suggestions for building constructive communication with the addict:
1. Give them feedback not advice
- There is a big difference between advice and feedback – one is intrusive, the other supportive. Advice amounts to telling the addict what to do, and addicts don’t like to be told what they should do. The addict will never respond well to pressure. Any advice on how they need to change will simply provoke an angry reaction. They say in 12 Step Fellowships that defiance is the chief characteristic of the addict. That is why these Fellowships offer only suggestions.
- Feedback, on the other hand, means letting the addict know how their behavior is affecting you. It is perfectly acceptable to tell the addict how you feel when they use drugs. This allows the addict to make up their own minds regarding how their behavior may be harming them or you.
- Feedback is simply a matter of sharing your feelings. With feedback, you are not making demands on the addict. Advice, though, is your opinion and recommendations on why and how they must stop using drugs. Advice comes from a position of superiority, implying you know best how they should lead their lives.
Since the majority of us don’t know the difference between giving advice and feedback here are suggestions on how to communicate using feedback techniques:
a) Provide them with the facts
Though the addict’s behavior is often distressing, try to be dispassionate when telling the addict about how his actions affect you. Remember that he does not mean you harm, and you should not take his actions personally. When you talk with the addict, provide him with information that is descriptive and objective. When sharing your thoughts, stick to the facts and stay calm. For instance, take a situation where the addict was out late the previous night and his whereabouts were unknown. Perhaps you were sick with worry that harm had come him, and you were angry to be put through that anxiety. Nevertheless, when talking to the addict the following day, describe how their behavior affected you and state what you find unacceptable. Avoid crying or shouting or recrimination. Distancing yourself emotionally from the addict’s behavior lessens the effects of addiction on your life and helps you avoid reacting in impulsive and harmful ways. Also, when you speak calmly and honestly about how you feel, the addict is much more likely to hear you.
b) Do not pass judgment
Avoid name-calling, which is sure to provoke an angry, defensive reaction in the addict. Telling the addict that his behavior is “stupid”, “destructive”, “unreliable”, etc. will get you nowhere. The addict already knows he is acting irresponsibly, but he will still resent having his bad behavior thrown in his face. In all cases, be careful choosing your words because it will be hard to take back any angry insults.
c) Do not react on impulse
Give yourself time to calm down before speaking with them. Before getting into a discussion about a touchy subject, make sure you are not emotionally upset or too angry or frustrated. Wait until you can be more objective. Remember that it is in your best interests to remain calm. To react angrily or to engage in arguments are the ways you yourself play a part in the insanity of the addiction. When you have gained a calm perspective on the issue at hand, you will more likely talk common sense.
d) Avoid extremes
Being negative with the addict in your life will do harm to his prospects to get better. When talking with them do not use extreme words such as “never”, “always” or “for the rest of my life”, because these predictions can become self-fulfilling prophesies. And, of course, extreme expressions such as “you are always going to be a failure” or “you will never get clean” will trigger a defensive reaction on their part. Try to deal with the issue of the moment, the here and the now.
e) Avoid engaging addict when he is high
Trying to have a sensible conversation with an addict when he is high is futile. You might as well be talking to the wall. Or worse, you and the addict will wind up arguing. But just remember, when you talk to an addict high on drugs, you are talking to the disease. Instead, wait for a time when they have a better chance of hearing what you have to say.
f) Be goal oriented
If there is a subject that you need to discuss with the addict, make sure your objectives for the talk are clear to yourself. It is pointless to get into a conversation simply to vent your anger and frustration. Though you may feel relieved for a while, such conversations do nothing to address problems regarding the addict’s behavior. In the end, you will be left more frustrated.
g) Take responsibility for your feedback
Try to get in the habit of telling the addict how you feel, rather than telling him what he is doing wrong. When you talk to the addict, do you begin most sentences with “you”? That’s an indication you have the focus on the addict, rather than yourself. It’s much better for open discussion if you talk about yourself and how a situation is affecting you. For example, do not say “you are doing ….” Instead say, “I feel …”, or “my life is being affected in this manner”. From a psychological point, the addict has a better chance of hearing your side of the story when you talk about how you feel, as opposed to making the addict feel guilty for all your problems.
h) Make sure you made your point
If there is something you want to get through to the addict, make sure they have gotten the point. When you give feedback, give the addict the opportunity to respond. You want to be sure they have understood what you set out to tell them. You want to allow them to have their say. Your job then is to listen, with as little judgment as you can. No doubt you have experienced addicts talking and making promises they don’t keep. But maybe somewhere down the line, the fact that they were listened to without judgment will help them wake up to the reality of their addiction.
2. Highlight their inconsistencies
- The goal of feedback and open discussion with the addict is to help him see what his addiction is really all about. Drug users live in denial about the nature of their addiction and its affect on those around them. But hearing from a loved one how the disease affects them can be eye opening to the addict.
- Don’t expect miracles or overnight cures. Even after you start to use the suggestions in this section about conversing with the addict, you must allow for the fact you are dealing with a drug addict deep in his disease. Just because you are trying to do the right thing, you may still find yourself frustrated, knowing full well he is being dishonest or trying to manipulate you. Just remember what is suggested about staying calm and objective. This will take practice, and don’t expect to get it right every time.
- Tell the truth, but be diplomatic in the manner you respond to him. Instead of responding defensively to prove your point, ask him questions to bring to light his inconsistencies. Questions such as: “How is that? “How do you mean?” “In what way?” The point is that if the conversation turns into a fight, nothing is accomplished. He has gone on the defense, back into denial and the disease has won again, for it thrives in intense and volatile emotions.
- Your goal is to move them towards considering the possibility that they have a problem with drugs. Asking them questions about how they perceive the problem, what their view of the cause of their problem is rather than telling them what they should do to stop is an effective way to accomplish this.
3. Let them take responsibility
- Addicts have a tendency to blame others for their problems. Ask them why they use drugs and they will give you a million reasons and excuses that deflect any responsibility from themselves. Most addicts have low self-esteem problems. They don’t feel good about themselves, and they project their feelings onto others, blaming them for all their problems. Of course, this makes it easier for them to justify their drug use.
- Family members trying to help the addict break out of denial and admit his drug problem must resist the defensive mechanisms of the addict, above all, his attempts to pin the blame on others. No one can cause another person to become addicted to drugs, and so family members must shake off the guilt that so often hits those closest to the addict. Accepting the truth of this, family members will be on firm footing in dealing with the addict and his attempts to manipulate and dodge responsibility. When the addict accepts that no one but himself can address his addiction, he has reached a pivotal point. When those around him stop taking responsibility for the addict’s addiction, then the addict stands a better chance of recovery. When the guilt and the blaming are taken out of the equation, then room is made for acceptance and willingness to take measures to recover from the illness.
- Communicating with the addict means more than talking to them. One has to listen too. Ask the addict honest questions about themselves and their drug use. Let the addict tell you in his own words why he uses drugs. Hearing himself speak can be therapeutic and enlightening for him. If they are honest, they will have to admit to themselves that they have lost the power to stop their drug use, that it has become a disease over which they are solely responsible. The truth is that addicts get clean only after admission and acceptance of their condition. Family members can help through non-emotional and productive communications, and though demonstrating healthy behaviours. Ultimately, though, the choice to recover and the willingness to take the necessary actions belongs to the addict.
- When addiction is present, it is too easy for family members to step in and give advice, to try to solve the problem themselves, and attempt to fix, or cure their loved one. Based on the faulty belief that addiction is merely a behavioral problem, these efforts are bound to failure and commonly result only in anger and resentment. Family members put all their energy into getting the addict to change his behavior. Yet when this fails to occur, when their own lives turn chaotic and unmanageable, they blame the addict. But if family members realize addiction is a disease over which they too have no power, then they can change how they approach their addicted loved one. Then there is no longer a game of rescue and resentment, blame and guilt, but a common sense approach on how to direct the addict towards getting clean. Family members take responsibility for themselves, and expect the addict to take responsibility for himself. They can talk to them in the manner that will motivate him to take actions for his condition. Acknowledgment of the disease of addiction and its adverse effects on family members can also enlighten and empower family members to take back control of their lives — regardless of their addicted loved one. They realize the limits of their ability to help the addict and can allow the addict to experience the consequences of his addiction. This may be very difficult to do, for as family members we want to do all that is possible to stop our loved one’s suffering. But ultimately we cannot control nor have any power over how others lead their lives.
Basics of communicating with an addict
Here are some simple basic points to bear in mind when talking with our addicted loved ones:
1. Accept that your loved one is suffering from the disease of addiction and has lost the power of choice or control over his drug use
2. As hard as it may be for you to see your loved one suffer, you need to allow them to experience the consequences of their addiction.
3. Expect that your loved one will resist giving up drugs and will say and do anything to protect his addiction
4. Show concern and understanding that they are suffering from a disease, but realize that they have to go through this to get better.
5. Be patient with them. What you are asking them to do is give up a habit of a lifetime. This will take time and will not happen overnight.
6. Do not pretend you understand or condone their destructive addictive behaviors. Yet do not criticize them for their behavior or argue with them.
7. Do not blame or attack them, but point out to them the inconsistencies between their actions and their talk.
8. Do not nag, order, bully, beg, persuade, or coerce them. These stances only lead the addict to use more drugs.
9. Instead of telling them what they should do and how they must stop their drug use, ask them questions, enquire about their feelings, and invite them to tell you what is going on with them.