By Martha McLaughlin

Addiction was once considered to be a simple failure of the will, but is now understood to be a disease perpetuated by changes in the structure and function of the brain. Despite advances in understanding, there’s still a stigma attached to addiction in our society, making it hard to know how much to disclose when the issue hits home.

Group of women talkingAs with any stigmatized condition, there are two truths to balance. One is that stigma can only be broken by people who talk openly about their experiences and change the prevailing cultural narrative. The other is that while some degree of stigma still exists, there may be a price to pay for honesty.

How to balance these forces is a personal decision that becomes even more complicated when the addiction isn’t your own. How much of your loved one’s story is your story, too? How do you respect privacy while still being open enough to receive the support you need? These aren’t easy questions to answer and are best addressed together with your loved one, when possible.

Here are some factors to keep in mind:

  • Stigma will only be broken by honest conversation and people willing to tell their stories. The New York Times reports on a campaign by the Center for Open Recovery, which involved posters featuring the faces of a wide variety of people and the tagline “This Is Recovery.” As the executive director of the organization notes, “People are dying who don’t need to die. If it were safe for more people to say, ‘I’m in recovery,’ I think many more people could say, ‘I need help.’”1
  • The way you address the issue can have a bearing on your loved one’s recovery, because anything that produces shame is likely to be counterproductive. Psychology Today notes that people suffering from addiction generally feel a large degree of shame already and that adding to it may backfire. They report on a study in which the people in early recovery from alcoholism who were the most ashamed of their last drink were more likely to relapse.2 If you treat your loved one’s addiction as a secret to be hidden, it can communicate that you’re ashamed of the issue and, by extension, of your loved one. If you talk about it, but in a manner that places a large degree of blame, it can also cause your loved one to feel an extra, unhelpful emotional burden.
  • You can have complex motives for sharing about your loved one’s addiction or choosing not to share in any given circumstance. Positive reasons for sharing include breaking stigma and receiving support. Negative reasons include consciously or subconsciously wanting to punish or get revenge for past events. Likewise, there can be both positive and negative reasons for staying silent. Are you motivated by privacy or secrecy? According to Psychology Today, privacy involves setting boundaries that align with your personal needs, while secrecy involves intentionally hiding something due to fear.3
  • Some people are more likely to offer support and encouragement than others. It can be helpful to join a support group, which is a safe place to share and receive understanding. Outside the group, people who’ve experienced challenges of their own may be more likely to respond with compassion than those whose understanding of suffering is largely theoretical. If you share with someone and the reaction is less positive than you hoped, try not to take it personally. People’s reactions are based on many things, most of which have little or nothing to do with you. People who aren’t initially supportive sometimes change over time as their understanding grows.
  • It’s helpful to think through what you want to say in various situations. When you choose to share, your goal is to be honest without being defensive. Think about what you would say if your loved one was suffering with or getting treatment for a different medical condition and strive for the same tone. With some people, you may want to be straightforward: “Ben is taking time off from school to deal with an addiction issue.” With others, you may choose to share in broader terms: “Jackie is dealing with some health issues at the moment.” Sometimes, people will ask follow-up questions, and it’s best to think through how you want to answer those as well. A simple response is something like “Chris prefers to keep that private for now.”

It can feel like you’re alone in dealing with your loved one’s addiction, but the issue touches many more people and families than you may realize. When you choose to share, you’re likely to be surprised at how many people will respond by telling their own stories. There’s hope and help, and a large community of people who understand.


Sources

1 Hilgers, Laura. “Let’s Open Up About Addiction and Recovery.” The New York Times, November 4, 2017.

2 Engel, Beverly. “How Compassion Can Help You Support an Addicted Loved One.” Psychology Today, October 3, 2016.

3 Weiss, Robert. “Why Secrets Can Ruin Relationships.Psychology Today, September 8, 2016.