When You Need to Talk About Addiction

When Brad Sorte moved back home after college, the happy reunion with family and friends didn’t last long. He’d started drinking heavily while he was in school, and now the insulation he’d had by living far away was gone. As the summer progressed into the fall, his old friends kept dropping away.

“By Thanksgiving, I was pretty alone,” he says. “A couple lifelong friends stayed in touch, but most had moved on with important things in their lives, while I felt stuck, and that made the problem worse,” he recalls. “I’d wake up every day basically declaring emotional bankruptcy. I didn’t see where my life could go from there.”

It’s likely he would have remained in that limbo—or spiraling toward a worse situation— if his parents hadn’t spoken with a therapist who told them he needed residential treatment. With that advice, they offered him a choice: Go into treatment or opt out of the family. If he chose the latter, they’d leave the door open to a relationship in the future, but not until he was healthy.

“That clarity, of having one direction or the other, felt fair to me,” he says. “I’d been so uncertain, and waking up every day not knowing what to do. Having one choice to make felt like a fresh start, so I took it.” He entered 30-day rehab at Caron Pennsylvania, then transitioned to Caron Renaissance in Florida for another four months. Afterward, he found support within Caron’s active alumni network and has been sober ever since.

Find the starting point

That was about 15 years ago, and Sorte is now CEO at Caron, a multi-location treatment center specializing in addiction and its co-occurring disorders. Having worked as a family therapist and facilitator of client group sessions at Caron before his current role, he’s seen many examples of how tough conversations lead to better outcomes.

That said, it’s certainly not easy getting to that point, especially for many men, says Christopher Owsiany, clinical director of the men’s program and opioid treatment programming at Caron.

“For men, a perception of many people have is that they’re supposed to be okay, no matter what,” he adds. “They should be able to handle whatever comes their way, and not talk about their demons.”

Find out more about Caron, a multi-location treatment center with a 94.4 percent rate of recovery at 90 days post treatment, based on an independent study.

“But there are red flags that signal there’s an issue, and those aren’t always visible to the person with substance use disorder. Sometimes, friends need to be more aware when these come up,” Owsiany explains. Flags to look for include:

  • Large-scale consequences of drinking and substance use like trouble with home life, a DUI, a car accident, or job loss
  • Changes in appearance, such as losing or gaining weight
  • Not as active as they used to be
  • Schedule shifts, like being unable to make plans in the morning
  • Avoidance of activities that don’t involve alcohol or substances

If you see these behaviors occurring and decide to follow up with a conversation, you may find that their reasoning doesn’t quite make sense. “Often, the pieces don’t seem to fit,” Owsiany says.

Then, the next step might be talking about their substance use, he says. That doesn’t need to be an ultimatum like the one Sorte’s parents issued, but it should be just as serious and honest.

Here are some strategies that Owsiany and Sorte advise for navigating toward that impactful talk:

Choose a comfortable location, without substances

Needless to say, having this conversation at a bar around closing time won’t be effective. Instead, the discussion should be where your friend feels comfortable and at a time when substances, including alcohol, aren’t involved.

“If you catch them when they’ve already started drinking or using for the day, it tends not to go well,” says Owsiany, adding that it can be helpful to choose a place where you have some movement and space, like taking a hike. Being outdoors together and not sitting face to face, can help the person feel more at ease. If that feels intimidating, considering having a phone call or even writing a letter, he says.

Use “I” statements

Similar to the right place is the right tone. Confrontational language like, “You’re drinking too much,” can often fire up someone’s defenses. It’s likely you’ll already encounter an initial round of denial and pushback, such as: “Everyone drinks this much,” or “It’s not that bad,” so starting with a neutral tone is important, as well as offering a genuine expression of concern, Owsiany explains.

Begin the conversation with what you’ve been seeing, so it comes from your perspective and use statements that reflect your point of view. For example:

  • I’ve been concerned about you because it seems like your health is being more and more affected by drinking
  • I was scared when you didn’t remember what we talked about over the weekend
  • I feel like the only time we see each other is when we hang out at a bar, and that makes me wonder if something is going on
  • I really value our friendship and I love you and care about you, but I’ve seen you drinking more than our friends and that makes me worried about you

Using specific examples is also key, Owsiany adds. The suggestions above are starting points to open the conversation. Follow them with concrete observations that reported consequences of behavior. Most of all, he says, take a deep breath and acknowledge how tough this can be.

“It takes strength to be vulnerable,” he says. “You need courage and bravery to stand up to your friend, and for your friend. It might not feel like that in the moment, but know that you’re doing the right thing.”

Avoid waiting

If a friend or family member is struggling, you might be listening for an opening, like that person admitting that they drink or use substances more than they’d like. Sorte says if you’re getting ready for that moment, you could end up attending a funeral instead. “If you wait for someone to see the light, you’ll always be waiting, and it could end up tragically,” he says. “It’s a huge fallacy that someone has to come to a realization on their own about needing treatment if it’s going to be effective. You need to take action.”

Also, keep in mind that pushback is common, but know that just having the conversation often plants a seed and helps people notice their behavior in new ways, Owsiany adds. As you start establishing boundaries—like telling the person you can hang out, but only if they’re not drinking or using—that new perspective may become clearer.

“It’s never too late to make an impact on someone’s life in this way,” Owsiany says. “Set your boundaries and stick to them, but don’t give up hope that you’ll eventually be heard.”

Caron Treatment Centers have treated patients and families with evidence-based custom treatment plans for 65 years. Their staff provides real compassion, care, and understanding of addiction and its accompanying mental health issues. LEARN MORE.

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