A common issue that arises when working with individuals with substance use disorders and their loved ones is the question of; “what or how much to disclose about the individual struggling with addiction”. This is a difficult question to answer. While it is important to remove the veil of secrecy and work to eliminate the stigma attached to substance abuse, it is recommended that loved ones consider the effects of their disclosures on their struggling loved one, as well as others in their lives.
In this consideration, there are many questions to consider:
What do I know?
Due to the diminished communication and inherent secrecy of active addiction, many times those closest to individuals with substance use disorders don’t know what is really going on in their loved ones’ life. But, perhaps maybe you are one of a few who really knows what is going on, or maybe you are in a position to speak openly with your loved one about their struggle with the disease of addiction.
The important thing to remember is to ask questions, but don’t force for answers.
Please be cautious of any felt need to get specific details. Rather, It is an overall picture of the status of the individual’s life that is needed early on. Strive for a felt connection on where your struggling loved one is emotionally and an understanding of how you can help. It is then that you may relay the concerns of other family members and friends and ask your loved one what they would like you to share with them.
It is also recommended at this point to gather information on addiction.
What do you know about the disease of addiction? What do you know about treatment and recovery? It is important to be equipped with this information, both in speaking with your struggling loved one and also in sharing information with concerned family and friends.
Who am I sharing this information with?
It is difficult to be in the position of relaying information from and about a struggling loved one. Given the burden of this position, it is recommended that individuals seek out support. Just as individuals in treatment and recovery are recommended to attend Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and any number of other 12 Step and mutual support group, there are fellowships/programs which can serve as a benefit to family and friends.
These include: Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and Families Anonymous.
By participating in these fellowships, individuals can get direction in who to share information with and how much information should be shared. Individuals who are struggling with the fact that a loved one is using alcohol and/or drugs may also benefit from participating in therapy with a licensed practitioner.
Individuals who love those struggling with substance use are deeply impacted by the behaviors of those who are using or are in early recovery. It is important to note that some information is appropriately shared within their circle of friends and family and other information would be better served to be shared with an impartial third party. The main issue in this regard is the issue of trust. An individual who is using or is in early recovery may have shared some highly personal experiences or information with a loved one with the belief that this is something that would not be shared with others. To maintain their trust, a crucial element for recovery support, it is important that family and loved ones are aware of, and limit disclosing, information which will have a negative impact on their ongoing relationships or on other relationships in their loved one’s life.
Lastly, and of a special note, are children and adolescents who may be impacted by a loved one’s use. In these situations, it is recommended that professionals are contacted to assist them in processing this impact and guide the adults in their lives how to share/discuss the issue of substance abuse. An additional support in this regard is Alateen, which is a part of the Al-Anon Family Groups
Why am I sharing this information?
Individuals can often consider sharing information on a ‘need to know’ basis. Even further, asking one’s self, “Is this a need to know right now situation?” In this light, one can consider if personal disclosures can be made by the actual person later without doing any harm in the present. Situations that press for the disclosure of information vary, which is why it has been recommended that you seek counsel in mutual support or therapy. Often a need is felt to protect the individual struggling with substance use from themselves or from others. Is this an accurate appraisal of the situation, or are you trying to manage and control things beyond your reach? Or are you sharing information that is not your responsibility to disseminate? Do not feel forced to share information just because you have it. Are you sharing to vent, recognizing that anger (often a secondary emotion to fear in these situations) is a natural feeling during this time? If so, consider who you are speaking with and the impact this may have. Are you sharing hope? If not, please work to generate hope as without hope it is easier for the individual struggling to give up if they don’t believe that you believe recovery is possible.
Am I doing and/or saying the right thing?
Please remember that so long as you are seeking out information, utilizing supports, and taking care of yourself and your own well-being, you ARE doing the right thing. If you are doing what you need to do for yourself, there is no right and wrong. Certainly, there will be lessons learned and opportunities for change and growth. Just as the individual struggling with addiction will, hopefully, be learning more about self and others, you too will learn more about yourself and those in your life in ways you’ve never imagined.
Embrace this. Remain hopeful. And know that you are never alone.
Author: Jonathan K. Blauvelt, MA – Footprints to Recovery – Clinical Supervisor