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How to have the hard conversation about addiction

For anyone who might be worried about a loved one, it can be difficult to know when to bring up their substance use, what to say and how to help.


Conversations surrounding addiction can be intimidating – not just for the person who is struggling, but for the people who love them as well. It’s not a topic families or friends feel comfortable talking about openly, but it could be a life-saving discussion. For anyone who might be worried about a loved one, it can be difficult to know when to bring up their substance use, what to say and how to help.

What is addiction?
Ralph Begay is a PEER Recovery Coach for Burrell Behavioral Health. After living with addiction to drugs and alcohol for years, he’s been sober since 2017. Now, he uses his lived experience to connect with people who have survived an overdose. Begay said some consider addiction to be a “battle.”

“Recovery to me is more like a cease fire, kind of a peace treaty. It’s for a moment but I can easily get back into that,” he said.

Begay said addiction is not a choice.

“There’s this almost like, hijacking. You become this dependent person on a substance to feel good. It’s a battle of the brain,” he said. “It’s a process. It becomes chronic. It becomes progressive.”

Amanda Mays is Burrell’s Director of Recovery Services. She said most people start using substances as a coping skill. Substance use is considered an addiction when a person’s brain or body starts to rely on that substance.

“Nobody goes out and says, ‘I’m going to get addicted to this substance or this activity.’ It is a disease. Therefore, it becomes something that can be and needs to be medically treated,” she said.

What signs can I look for?
If you’re worried a loved one might be addicted to a substance, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are they making decisions that are harming themselves and the people they love and care about because of the drug or to get the drug?
  • Are they starting to not act like themselves?
  • Are they hiding it?
  • Are they not talking about it?

What should I say?
Mays suggests approaching the conversation about addiction with concern and compassion. You could say, “I’m worried about you,” instead of, “You’re acting differently” or “You’re doing something wrong.”

“Come at it with resources and ways to get them connected instead of hounding them or making them feel like they’re doing something bad or wrong,” Mays said.

Having been on the receiving end of that conversation at one point, Begay said, just remember to respect that person and what they’re going through.

“Love people because they’re people,” he said. “Treat them with dignity.”

What resources are available?
Burrell Behavioral Health offers a range of services for both youth and adults who are struggling with substance use, including individual and group therapies. Medicated Assisted Treatment is another option that can help with the impact of withdrawal symptoms.

Addiction can be life-threatening and recovery is not an easy process. It can be a very lonely and scary road, but no one has to go through it alone. Anyone looking for a personal recovery plan can reach out to Burrell’s Connection Centers.

For more information, watch this video.

To read more about Recovery Services at Burrell, click here.


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