9 Things You Should Never Say to Someone in Recovery–and What to Say Instead
No, they can't have "just one."
It’s the holiday season. Shopping, tinsel, eggnog, cookies, people, parties, presents, alcohol. What could be better?
Maybe just about anything, if you're in recovery, be it from drugs, alcohol, shopping, sugar, or something else. Certain ways of celebrating this time of year might be completely off limits–or only manageable in extreme moderation.
The holidays can be hard enough for people without addiction, but for those who do struggle, end-of-the-year festivities can be excruciating. “It’s a tricky time of year for a lot addictions because there’s a lot of stress,” says Sandra Davis, PhD, a psychotherapist in private practice in Pittsburgh.
If you know someone in recovery, or suspect someone might be, take these cues on what not to say–and better ways to show your support instead.
“Everyone gets dessert–except Emma!”
“Don’t single out [the person in recovery] in front of everyone else,” says Melissa Fors, a spokesperson for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Minneapolist.
That’s true regardless of their particular addiction. Don’t introduce Mark as an alcoholic, or make a point of handing him alcohol-free eggnog either.
“You don’t have to make it a big deal that they’re not drinking,” says Howard Forman, MD, director of addiction psychiatry at Montefiore Health System in New York City. “The most important thing for a host is to make non-drinking an acceptable alternative.” Stock your holiday party with non-alcoholic drinks and let your guests serve themselves.
Same goes for providing healthier food alternatives. Include a vegetable platter or fruit salad in your spread; don’t hide them in the kitchen or make a big deal out of it.
“Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay?”
This is just another form of singling someone out and earmarking them for attention.
“One of the biggest things is not making [a person in recovery] feel ‘special,’” says Shilpi Sheth, PsyD, associate program director for Sovereign Health in San Clemente, California. “If you’re checking on them all the time, even if you’re not verbally yelling anything so everyone can hear, people notice. That gets them anxious.”
If you make someone uncomfortable, you’re not helping them, adds Dr. Forman. In fact, you could end up making them crave what they can’t have even more.
Instead, check in on guests once in a while, like any friendly host or hostess would, with a simple: “Can I get you anything?” Just not every five minutes.
“Why not just have one? It’s time to celebrate!”
As the Alcoholics Anonymous saying goes, “One drink is too many, and a thousand are not enough.”
It’s the same with any addiction: Once you start, you can’t stop.
“Anyone who says ‘It’s okay, you can have a little!’ has no understanding of addiction,” says Davis. For someone in recovery, even one taste of temptation can set them on the path to relapse.
If someone declines a drink or a cookie, either leave them alone or present another choice. “Just offer them something else,” says Dr. Forman. “You don’t have to say ‘non-alcoholic.’ It doesn’t have to be a statement.”
“You don’t have to worry. I hid all the booze.”
When it comes to addictions, “access is almost never the problem,” says Dr. Forman. “There’s alcohol everywhere. The idea that you are going to tip someone into a relapse because you serve alcohol is unlikely. They’re going to pass by liquor stores on the way to your house.”
You don’t have to leave your buffet table eerily devoid of alcohol or sugary treats. Just make sure the alternatives–both in beverages and in food choices–get equal time on display.
If someone isn’t eating or drinking what’s out there, politely ask them, “Is there anything else I might get you?” The question is always a good fallback.
“Are you in recovery?”
If someone turns down a drink, your famous shortbread cookies, or a shopping expedition, stop yourself from asking them if they’re in recovery, how long they’ve been in recovery, when they’ll be cured, or anything of that nature.
“A lot of people are struggling with the issue of shame and self-worth,” says Sheth. “They’re just getting through one day at a time. Asking how long they’ve been sober or how long they’ve been in recovery is very invasive.”
The principle of anonymity in many recovery groups is there for a reason. Instead of prying, ask if you can get them anything else, or simply offer a friendly smile.
“Why aren’t you drinking?”
This is about as bad as coming right out and asking someone if they’re in recovery. It puts the spotlight on the person recovering and highlights their situation.
“Don’t ask why aren’t you drinking, why aren’t you eating dessert?” Dr. Forman says. “There could be a million reasons why people aren’t drinking, but it’s their choice to tell.”
Even people not in recovery can have a hard time with alcohol or other substances during the holidays. “Most of the bad outcomes in this country from alcohol are not from people who are ‘alcoholic,’” he adds. “It’s from people who drink too much on a particular occasion.”
“What was your rock bottom?”
Safe to say this is a rude question all year long–but people might be extra-sensitive around the holidays to such prying.
“A lot of people run into serious consequences this time of year,” says Fors. “Don’t ask, ‘Did you get a DWI?’”
The question could also remind them of past incidents while they’re trying to enjoy a sober season.
There’s no real evidence, beyond anecdotal, that more people relapse or hit rock bottom around the holidays, but it’s been known to happen, says Dr. Forman.
Basically it’s none of your business–any time of year.
“How many people are you shopping for?”
On the surface, this may seem like an innocuous question and pretty pertinent to the holiday season, after all. But close to 6% of Americans have compulsive buying disorder and, for those people, Christmas can spell trouble.
“There’s a lot of pressure in terms of spending,” says Davis. “You don’t want to reinforce it.” The stores–and sales–are already taking care of that!
It’s probably better to steer clear of the money topic. Finances are one of the biggest sources of stress any time of the year.
If someone asks for financial guidance, that’s another matter, says Dr. Forman. Instead of offering unsolicited advice, he says, “wait for the opening.”
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“I know exactly how you feel.”
Lots of people have a hard time navigating the holidays, with emotional ups and downs and (often) uncomfortable social interactions.
“The holidays are a very sensitive emotional time,” says George F. Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “People often remember lost loved ones. It’s a dangerous zone to be in when you start drinking to forget about things that are bad.” For someone in recovery, it can also bring up memories of past behavior they'd rather not remember.
Even if you can relate, no two experiences are exactly alike. “Don’t say: ‘I understand, I have a hard time at the holidays too,’” says Steve G., 61, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “No, you don’t. My story’s different from yours.”