What to Say to an Addict in Denial

Watching someone struggling with an addiction is a difficult and painful thing, especially when their substance use is hurting family relationships, study, career goals, and finances. This is even more true when that person fails to even realize they have a problem, instead either ignoring setbacks or attempting to push the blame for failure to problems other than substance use.

While it’s true that you cannot make someone attend addiction treatment and you can’t make someone you love see that they need help you can talk to them, and you can try to get them to realize that they need help.

Self-Denial in Addiction

Many addicts fail to realize they are addicted, even when their substance use is damaging their life, because of denial. In many cases, addiction denial begins internally, with small likes, like “I can stop anytime I want”, “I don’t really have a problem”, “I just use to unwind”, “I’ll stop when X thing happens”. People convince themselves that they are fine because addiction is heavily stigmatized and people don’t like to feel guilty or ashamed of their behavior. So, they try to rationalize it in any way they can.

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When someone else approaches someone in denial those excuses become external. The addict stops having to prove to themselves that they aren’t an addict, and often let themselves become angry because their reasons are valid, right? If you’ve ever indulged in a guilty pleasure, tried to quit smoking, or even had a late-night snack when you weren’t supposed to, you know a little bit about how insidious this kind of rationalization can be. You can actually convince yourself that you’re right until well after the fact. Substance abuse changes the chemistry of the brain, making this kind of rationalization and self-denial even worse.

Starting Discussions with an Addict

If you see something like an intervention on television, you’ll likely hear words like “we think you have a problem”, “your drinking is hurting your family”, and so on. These kinds of words almost never have the effect that you might want. Instead, they will likely get angry and either completely deny a problem, blame their substance use on stress or on you, or otherwise become aggressive. You won’t get anywhere, and they will likely begin to pull away emotionally, because they know that you are prepared to hurt them.

If you go to a loved one with the intent of getting past this denial, you will have to remain calm, be logical, and not make blatant accusations. Try starting normal discussions and leading up to topics surrounding substance use.

There are a few tactics you can use to do this without evoking denial.

Communicate Concern

Communicating that you are worried about the person is a very good strategy, because it says that you care, and it reminds the person that even though they’re using, they’re still a person you love. Starting conversations off with things that are concerning you and making them about the other person’s health (not the stigma of drug or alcohol abuse) is a good way to ‘get your foot in the door’.

  • “I noticed you didn’t come home last night, I was worried”
  • “I really missed you at dinner the other night”
  • “I miss talking like we used to,”

You can also talk about very specific substance use related events, but you should do so carefully, because many people will be aggressive about it.

  • “I saw you have track marks on your arm, are you going to be okay? Should I get Naloxone for you?”
  • “You blacked out the other day, I’m really worried about you. Is there anything I can do to help?”

The idea with approaching someone with concern is to tell them that you care about them first and foremost as a person, and it’s their health and wellbeing you care about, not your reputation or association with someone who uses or abuses alcohol. By talking about health and relationships, you show the person you love that they are your concern, not their substance use.

Leading to Self-Acknowledgement

Discussing concern is a very strong approach which puts someone’s behavior in the spotlight, but it isn’t always the right approach. Some people don’t want to be told that they have a problem, even by a concerned family member. Here, you can take a completely different approach, where you don’t bring up concern or worry, but instead talk about their goals, their life, and their achievements with natural concern when they bring them up. You can use simple phrases like these to get someone thinking about what’s actually getting in their way.

  • “Can you make that?”
  • “What’s stopping you?”
  • “Is that possible?”
  • “How can you make that happen?”

You can also discuss your own goals or a plan or an achievement, and then shift the focus to them. For example:

  • “What are your goals, are you planning something”
  • “Where do you want to be this time next year”
  • “What about you, what’s going on in your life?”

Many people who are denying their addiction are in a state of precontemplation, meaning that they haven’t actually begun to consider the problem or how it’s affecting them. By getting them to talk about their goals, their plans, their dreams, you get them to consider what is actually in the way, their life, and how their substance use is actually getting in the way.

You can also try giving up bad habits yourself or starting good ones and then talking about the difference it made for you. But don’t make it about drugs or alcohol.

  • “I smoked my last cigarette two weeks ago and you wouldn’t believe how much easier it is to go for a run”
  • “I started going to bed an hour earlier, and man has it made a difference to my energy levels during the day”
  • “I started cycling to work two weeks ago. I lost 5 lbs. already, can you believe it?”

Why would you talk about yourself? Getting people to start thinking about how things affect their life is a big step to bringing someone to the realization that their substance use is affecting their life.

Staying Calm and Keeping Positive

Someone who is addicted to a substance has spent a lot of time and energy convincing themselves that they don’t have a problem. They’re not going to give up that delusion simply because someone tells them they do. They may get angry, they may lie to your face, and they may say intentionally hurtful things. The key is to stay calm, to respond calmly, and to stay positive.

For example, if someone says something hurtful, you can try to make it about them:

  • “Hey, I know things are rough right now for you, I hope they get better and I hope you know I’ll be here whenever you need me”
  • “I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’m hear if you want to tell me”
  • “I know this is hard, I’m sorry I pushed you, but just let me know when you’re ready to talk about it”

Staying calm is difficult, especially when someone responds unreasonably, their actions hurt you, or they steal or manipulate you for money for their habit. But, staying calm and offering support, rather than tough love or cutting them out of your life, is the fastest way to get someone into treatment.

Importantly, there is a big difference between enabling and supporting a habit with money, excuses, or lies and supporting them emotionally. To drive that home to them, you can try saying things like:

  • “I’m not ashamed if you’re using so I’m not going to lie to my friends. But I am worried about your health”.
  • “I can’t give you money because I’m afraid you might hurt yourself, I’m sorry”
  • “I won’t drive you because I’m worried and don’t want you to go, but if you need to leave, call me and I’ll come pick you up”

Once someone realizes that they have a problem, it’s significantly easier to convince them to get help. If they don’t come to that realization on their own, you may need to take matters into your own hands with a professional intervention, but gently leading them to make the conclusion themselves is a much better start. Then, you can get started convincing them that you can help them to get treatment.

Addiction treatment is multifaceted, tackling the many problems that lie behind addiction. A good treatment center will offer family therapy, group therapy and sponsorships to encourage your loved one to learn from others, behavioral therapy to learn new skills and unlearn bad behavior, and will help your loved one to improve every area of their lives, so that they can be happy and fulfilled without substance use. Getting them to recognize that they have a problem is the first step to getting them there.

Beginnings Treatment Centers is located in beautiful and sunny Southern California in Orange County, which has one of the strongest and most active recovery communities in the United States. If you or your loved one is struggling with addiction, contact us today and speak with one of our experienced and professional intake advisors, we’re here to help.