Alcohol use disorder, sometimes called alcoholism, is a disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease. One of its many unspoken rules is that you must keep it hidden — from yourself, and especially from family and friends.
But when you’re ready, there are two important reasons to widen the circle.
1. Secrets and shame keep you sick.
“Addiction thrives in isolation and recovery happens in community,” says Marvin Ventrell, CEO of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers.
“In any substance use disorder, feeling shameful and keeping it a secret are all part of the condition, and we have to push through that to be well,” says Ventrell, who is in long-term recovery.
“We have a medical condition and it’s imperative to be able to talk to your friends and loved ones about it just as you would any other disease.”
2. You need and deserve support.
No matter what form your recovery takes, you need help. That includes the guidance of professionals who understand the disease, and the support of loved ones who can check in on you and show up for you.
“Sobriety says a lot about you,” says Tawny Lara, a sober sex and relationship writer who’s been sober for more than 5 years. “It says you’re prioritizing your mental and physical health. I wanted to have people in my life echo that. I have friends and family who aren’t sober, but I wanted them to understand what was happening in my life.”
It’s Tough to Be Vulnerable
Alcohol use disorder isn’t a failure issue. It’s not about your morals or character. But the stigma around addiction says otherwise.
“The stigma is often what keeps people stuck,” says Todd Garlington, lead therapist at the Greenhouse Treatment Center, who is in long-term recovery. “The fear is that, when I tell somebody, they’re not going to accept me. They’re going to think I’m a bad person.”
Hollywood and the media support the stigma, but real life looks different.
“In movies, people hit rock bottom and they’re living under a bridge. Then they get sober,” Lara says. “That’s true for some people, but not everyone.
“I never saw my version of substance abuse disorder or alcohol use disorder represented, so I didn’t think I had a problem,” she says. “I still worked several jobs, had a roof over my head, paid my bills on time, and I could go days or weeks without drinking. But when I did drink, I drank until I blacked out. Normal drinkers don’t black out. I wish that was represented in film and television.”
Part of the recovery process is sharing your secret. It’s scary to be vulnerable, but chances are good that anyone you tell has either faced the same problem or knows someone who has.
“More than 25 million people in the United States over the age of 12 have a substance use disorder,” Garlington says. “Recognize that. Stand on that. Process it and get the help you need. The biggest thing is coming to the realization that you’re not alone.”
Actions and Reactions
Lara’s father is in recovery, so she knew he’d be supportive. She was more concerned about telling her friends.
“I was a bartender and party girl for a long time, and my friends were in that scene as well,” she says. “When I’d tell my bartender friends I wasn’t going to drink that week, they’d say, ‘You’re fine. You’re in your early 20s.’ I wondered how I was going to hang out with my friends, make new friends, and date. So much of my life was ingrained with alcohol consumption that doing anything without it was completely overwhelming.”
When she started to talk about her drinking problem, Lara got a mix of reactions.
“I learned who my friends were and who my drinking buddies were,” she says. “I got sober in a very atypical way. I started a blog and that was my accountability.
“My friends were supportive because it was a writing project, but one friend — we had ‘best friend’ tattoos — accused me of lying and making it all up for attention. Later she apologized and said she had a hard time processing my news because if I had a problem, it meant she might have a problem, too.”
Asking for Support vs. Sharing Information
Before you share with someone, ask yourself this: What do I need?
Maybe you need to tell a friend or loved one what’s going on with you, and that’s enough. Maybe you’re asking for support. If that’s the case, be as specific as you can:
- Can you go with me to a meeting?
- Can you get me to treatment?
- If I need to detox, can you make sure I have clothes and basic necessities?
- Can you send me some cards or letters while I’m in detox?
- If we go out, can you please not drink around me?
“A lot of times it’s really just ‘be there,’” Lara says. “’Hey, I’m going to tell my mom about my drinking problem at 1 p.m. today. Can you stand by if I need to talk?’ Or ‘I’m having a hard time. Can you randomly text me a funny GIF this week?’”
In the early days of her recovery, Lara did a lot of research: She read memoirs, checked out stories online, and searched #sober on social media to see how other people told their families.
“There are really wonderful free resources out there,” she says.
Bonus: The more people you tell, the more accountability you create. “The more people around me who know I’m struggling with this, the more apt I am to stay on course,” Garlington says.
There Are No Magic Words
There is no right or perfect way to share your drinking problem with a friend or family member. The fact that you’re telling anyone at all is a step in the right direction.
“Just be real and tell people what you’re going through,” Lara says. “You don’t have to tell them why, just that you’ve decided to stop drinking. That can build a bridge and create a conversation. Above all else, it removes the shame and stigma of the secret we kept to ourselves for so long.”
Your loved ones may not know what to say, or they may have questions. To help them learn more, Lara suggests sharing a few resources you’ve used. But don’t overdo it. Your focus should be on your own recovery.
The goal is to share safely and not feel disconnected as you work to get sober.
“All you need to say is, ‘I have a problem,'” Ventrell says. “When one does that, they immediately begin to feel a little better because they’re not as alone and frightened.”
Set Healthy Expectations
Everyone’s journey from addiction to sobriety is unique. The only thing you can control about telling your friends and family about your drinking is the words you say. You can’t control the way anyone else feels or reacts.
“In a perfect world, what we’d get from these conversations is complete and total love and acceptance. Truth is, it can go well or it can go badly. It depends on the individual.” Garlington says.
“If it goes badly, don’t give others power over you. You control your destiny. Use positive self-talk: ‘I can do this.’”
Garlington has been there more than once.
“I was sober for 20 years, then relapsed,” Garlington says. “I had so much guilt when I called my father to say I had to go back to treatment. But he said, ‘Son, I’m glad you’re getting the help you need,’ and that obliterated my shame and guilt. Our disease can drive us into some very dark places. Breaking through that is huge.”