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Using the Right Words to Support a Recovering Alcoholic

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Using the Right Words to Support a Recovering Alcoholic

Mar 13, 2019

Choosing to enter recovery for alcohol addiction is a difficult decision that requires a lot of support. Psychiatrist Dr. Jason Hunziker discusses how to support a friend or family member without accidentally causing offense.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: You have somebody in your life who is entering the alcohol recovery process or is in recovery and you want to be supportive but some of the things you say might actually be harmful.

Announcer: Health information from expects, supported by research. From University of Utah Health, this is

Interviewer: We're talking with Dr. Jason Hunziker, psychiatrist at the University of Utah. Dr. Hunziker, people who are recovering from alcohol addiction, it's a really hard process and they need all the support they can get.

Dr. Hunziker: The choice to go into recovery is a big deal for everyone who does it. It's a very difficult process and it does take a lot of support not only internally but from people in the environment and from systems that help people enter the recovery process. We do have to be careful however what we say to people as they are getting ready to enter that process and as they are in that process so that we can motivate them to stay sober and make this big change in their life.

Some of the things I recommend that we don't say are things like, "Hey you can have just one, and it's not going to hurt anything." That clearly is not going to be helpful to somebody who is telling you that their life has been destroyed by alcohol. That's sets you up for failure in your process and in your program and so that's something that should be avoided.

Interviewer: So what are some other things that people say sometimes that you think are supportive but really aren't?

Dr. Hunziker: Somebody is in the program and you think you're being supportive by visiting them and then you say, "You know I'm glad you're doing this right now. It's a good time for you to do this but one day you're going to be able to drink again."

Interviewer: Really? They say that?

Dr. Hunziker: Yes, and again that is not something that is helpful at all to maintain the sobriety that they're looking for. When you stop, you still have the addiction. You just choose now not to use. And I use the word choose pretty lightly because if it was that easy to quit, everybody would just quit. So they make the decision to everyday get up in the morning and realize that they're not going to use and then go through that day not using even though they still have some cravings, they still have some desires and they still fight that impulse to go get some alcohol.

Interviewer: Okay, what are some other things that people might say?

Dr. Hunziker: Other things people say when they don't realize you don't realize you're an alcoholic at all they'll say, "Wait a minute. I see you go to work every day. You have a job. You're still making money. How can you be an alcoholic?" They think that just because you can function that you're not an alcoholic. But that still does not mean that this does not interfere with other aspects of your life.

Some people will say when you've been in the process for a long time and you've been going to your recovery meetings and you haven't had a drink they'll say, "Aren't you done yet? I mean, you've been doing this for years, shouldn't you be cured already?" There's no cure. I mean the cure is to not drink and the only way to not drink is to get positive support and to be actively making sure that doesn't happen.

Interviewer: Okay, any other things that people might say they think are supportive to a recovering alcoholic but might not really be that supportive?

Dr. Hunziker: Well I think sometimes people want to down play or minimize the alcoholism in the other person's life and so they will say things like, "Well I eat food every day, that doesn't make me addict so how could you be an addict?"

Interviewer: Because those two things are so comparable.

Dr. Hunziker: Exactly, exactly. So clearly our words are very important when somebody has made the decision to go into recovery and we need to choose those words carefully. We don't shy away from having conversations but I don't think we want to interfere and actively seek out information about the alcoholism. If somebody wants to give it to us, great. Let's listen, let's be supportive but if you start asking a lot questions people feel like you're being intrusive and then when you're intrusive it sets them up for failure.

Interviewer: So what are the words and the conversations that you can say to recovering or you should be saying to a recovering alcoholic?

Dr. Hunziker: It's not so much what you say all the time but some of the things that you do. Be available so if they call you in the middle of the night you don't say, "Oh, you're just drunk again" or " Oh, here it goes again." You're supportive, you're available, and you're encouraging them to use you as a support system so they don't go drink. Other things, you stay positive. Keep giving them encouragement all the time because it is a difficult process.

I mean you could imagine if you had to give up something you really enjoyed doing even if you didn't really think it was causing you that much problems. So you want to make sure that you're positive and they get encouraged by you so they will continue to fight the addiction.

Interviewer: So say you know someone who is thinking, who is considering the recovery process, what can you say to them to kind of motivate them to enter it?

Dr. Hunziker: You know I think normally what you want to do is have them think about how this helps them or doesn't help them. If you can say to them, "Okay, let's make a list of how alcohol helps you in your life, and then let's make a list of how alcohol hurts your."

Interviewer: Doesn't help you in your life.

Dr. Hunziker: Exactly, exactly.

Interviewer: Pros and cons.

Dr. Hunziker: And then people can look at that and then you can provide motivation based on the positive feature say, "Look what you can... You want these, you want that, you want this. The only way to get that is to be sober and if you can be sober, good things are going to come."

Interviewer: So any final thoughts that you have about recovering alcoholics, what you should and shouldn't be saying?

Dr. Hunziker: The only thought I have is that if somebody comes to you and says, "I'm contemplating stopping my drug use or my alcohol use." Please refer them to somebody who has a knowledge of recovery, has a knowledge of treatment, their primary care doctor, Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, somewhere that they can get that process moved from contemplation to full active recovery.

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updated: March 12, 2019
originally published: November 5, 2014