Addiction is a disease. Even when we understand that, it can be difficult to talk openly about. Yet communicating effectively during this time is crucial. That’s why this article explores how to talk openly about addiction.


When we treat addiction as the disease it is, it changes our language. We’re framing it as a health issue, showing respect to the person suffering from addiction as well as their family.

Compare the language you use when talking about addiction to how you would speak about asthma (for example). You wouldn’t define a person as “asthmatic” or use it when introducing them. In your mind, they are “a person with asthma”. The same should be true for a person with “a substance use disorder”.

The word “addict” perpetuates the negative stigma associated with their illness. These terms bring shame and negative judgment, instead of the support they need. When we reshape our language, it allows a person suffering with addiction to feel respected and safe. Being compassionate with our language helps everyone see the substance use disorder as the health issue it really is.

We’ve seen the difference proper language can make. Treating addiction as an illness has improved funding for both recovery centers, and insurance programs. Positive language has caused doctors to deliver better treatment and people to better support their loved ones.

Even the Associated Press (a non-profit organization that governs broadcasters and print journalists) has adapted their language to help reduce the stigmatization and support those with a substance use disorder.

An example of the proper language:

Switch the word “clean” for “recovery”. For example, instead of saying “he used to drink a lot but has been clean for six months”. Say “he’s been in recovery for six months”. The word “clean” implies the opposite “being dirty”, for when they’re not in recovery. This kind of negative language preserves the stigma associated with addiction.


Talking to a person about their substance use disorder may be difficult, but listening is easy. They also need you to listen more than they need you to talk. Honour the fact that they chose to confide in you. As difficult as it may be for you to help, it’s significantly more difficult for them to share this with someone.

Don’t interrupt. It may be hard for them to choose their words because they’re afraid of judgement. Allow them the chance to pause and think during the conversation. Let them tell their story in their own words. Chances are you don’t like or agree with their behaviour, they already know that. Your loved one will benefit more if you keep in mind that addictions happen for a reason and they’re trying to explain theirs to you. This can be a big step forward in recovery.


When someone is working to eliminate their substance use disorder, it helps to limit surprises. Sudden changes are stressful and stress will worsen their condition.

Remain consistent with your support and in your conversations. Remember that actions speak louder than words; if your partner confides in you that he/she has a drinking problem, don’t offer to share a bottle of wine at dinner.

A person with a substance use disorder is usually unpredictable themselves, both verbally and with their behaviour. Be the constant in their life, the person who will show unconditional love. This way they are more likely to continue sharing with you.


This might seem confusing after reading the importance of being consistent and showing unconditional love. However, boundaries are important when helping a person with a substance use disorder.

When talking with your loved one, let them know your limits. Stress that you’re not making empty threats or punishing them for bad behavior. Remind them that you’re here to help them get better, but if they’re unwilling to take the necessary steps to heal, then you can’t help them. It’s important for your loved one to see how their behaviour affects you, otherwise it’s not a reason for them to change.


Kindness and compassion are the secret ingredients to interacting with a person suffering from a substance use disorder. Since addictions are so stigmatized in our culture, your loved one already feels criticized and judged before talking to you.

Kindness can be difficult, especially if their substance use has already negatively affected you. It’s common for a person to burn bridges before they come to terms with their illness. If you’ve been on the receiving end of their negative behaviour, you need to find a way to forgive. This compassion can go a long way making them feel accepted and safe which makes talking openly about addiction easier.


There are different ways for people to heal from an addiction. Offer to help them find what works for them, rather than dictating their actions. You may provide ideas to get them through this, but refrain from showing anger or disappointment if they don’t follow your advice.

You may notice during this process that motivation for your loved one may change. Something that worked for them last month, might not work this month. It can be easier if you both understand that this is a process and you both might make mistakes. What’s important is that you keep trying and that they see you’re not giving up on them. 


Addiction often brings shame and fear. A person struggling with a substance use disorder may be scared of being reported to the authorities. In fact, this is often the biggest reason that they don’t seek help.

There are a variety of resources available, many of them free and confidential. Provide your loved one with these contacts, but don’t force them to reach out. If they make an appointment with a counselor, for example, then they’re more likely to follow up and attend the meeting.

Some people feel more comfortable talking on the phone, or chatting online. ConnexOntario offers free support 24/7 and will help connect your loved one to an organization or professional that’s suitable for their illness.