Who and How to Tell People About Your Addiction

The decision of if, when, and how you should tell someone else about your addiction is a personal matter – and it’s not one to be taken lightly. Naturally, you wouldn’t dream of just blabbing to the stranger in the coffee shop that you once were a heroin or meth addict, or that you had a compulsive sexual addiction. They’d likely be put off by information of such a personal nature. But you also don’t want to get too far along in a new relationship – however intimate – before you reveal some of your past. The question, then, is how open can you be about your addiction?

Honesty is the Best Policy – But…

Deception, keeping things from those we care about, glossing over the truth and hoping it won’t come back to bite us is a dangerous path to take. The more lies you tell, the more difficult it becomes to keep track of them. If you tell one version of your background to one person, or a group of people, say your boss and co-workers, another to your family, and another yet to new acquaintances, how are you going to remember what you said to whom? What happens when these people interact and the contradictions in your past come to light? What do you think happens then – to your credibility, reputation, trustworthiness, and reliability? You might jeopardize or ruin your chances for a promotion, or lose a lucrative potential contract. Your spouse or significant other could feel, and rightly so, betrayed and unsure of the foundation and nature of your relationship. If there are children involved, or the desire to have children, not knowing about your addiction could pose serious questions about family heredity and genetics. How should you handle the truth about your past? How much detail should you go into, and when is the appropriate time to even have a discussion about your addiction? It would be wonderful to state that you should always be truthful. But the fact is that not everyone has a right to know about things that happened in your past – certainly not the stranger on the street or very casual acquaintances. Some things are best kept closer to the vest. That’s the “but” in the strategy. Let’s take an example. You should be prepared to state honestly, if the situation warrants it, that you had a problem with alcohol, received treatment and have been sober for the past 10 years. Be straightforward and don’t go into details. Briefness is best. After all, no one is perfect. We all have challenges, obstacles, and missteps in our past that we’ve had to deal with. Thanks to a greater awareness that addiction is a treatable disease, today there is much less stigma attached to it than in years past. Nonetheless, there still is a stigma about addiction. So, if the other person seems to take it as a matter of fact and doesn’t pursue the subject, consider that you’ve said enough.

What About Loved Ones?

The closer your relationships, the more honest you need to be. This just stands to reason. They’re bound to find out at some point anyway, so why try to hide your addiction? You don’t need to be blatant about it, parading your sobriety like a badge of honor. This makes others nervous, as if you have something you’re trying to prove to yourself. Save your declarations about your sobriety for your 12-step group meetings. That’s where it really belongs. Your fellow 12-step members have all been in your shoes and understand the stresses, cravings, urges, and tough times every addict faces in recovery. They’re also uniquely qualified to help you through their support and encouragement. They don’t ask anything in return, and aren’t going to jeopardize your relationships, job or social standing. Again, choose where you want to be the most open and direct. Your spouse, partner or significant other deserves to know the most about your addiction. This is your life mate, the person with whom you share more than just your physical bonding. He or she should already know about your past, but if you’ve kept it secret up to this point, now’s the time to get it out in the open. While it’s understandable that you would feel like this would be a bombshell that could end the relationship, it’s worth taking the risk in order to strengthen your union. The question no longer becomes one of if you should tell your spouse/partner/significant other, but when and how. Here you have a lot of discretion and latitude. You still need to pick the time, place and manner of delivery.

Tips for Telling Your Spouse the Truth

Think about what pleases your spouse the most. Is it a romantic dinner for two or a getaway to a favorite vacation spot? Does your spouse really love a thoughtful gift, flowers, or a pre-paid spa appointment? What about season passes to a nearby ski resort or a membership in a golf club? Is the best time over coffee at sunset or during a picnic lunch at a lakeside park? Make a list of all the ideas you can come up with. Next, look over the list and see which ones are the most doable. By this, we don’t mean the easiest, but the ones that you believe will result in the receptiveness or willingness to listen to what you have to say. The timing and time of the revelation should be when you are alone together. Do not have any distractions or pressing appointments that will interfere with a solid discussion. This is true even if your spouse asks for time to think about it before discussing it further. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Wouldn’t you want time to think about such an admission before blurting out your reactions? Prioritize the list and choose the one that seems to provide the most likely positive result. By this we mean that you’ve selected a time, place and manner that will set up the situation so that you can have a private and personal discussion about your addiction. The best advice about talking with your spouse about your addiction is to be loving and honest. Demonstrate your affection before you begin talking about the situation, and ask that your partner hear you out. You may also wish to say that you want him or her to take as much time as necessary to think about it before venturing any comment or opinion, and that you will answer any questions when they are ready.

Be Prepared for Tough Questions

Of course, having made the statement that you’d answer any questions, you need to be ready and willing to do so. Be prepared for some tough ones. The discussion may be hard for your spouse to initiate, and he or she may not do it at the most appropriate time. If possible, change your schedule to be able to accommodate the more in-depth conversation that you need to have with your spouse. If it’s not possible to go into it at the moment your spouse brings it up, specify a time that’s mutually agreeable and then stick to it. Here are some of the questions that may pop up:

  • When was the last time you used (drugs, alcohol), or engaged in addictive behavior (gambling, compulsive sex)?
  • How long were you addicted? How long before I met you were you addicted?
  • What age were you when you first began using drugs and/or alcohol?
  • Were you ever arrested?
  • Have you ever had any sexually transmitted disease? How long ago were you tested?
  • Did you undergo formal treatment for your addiction?
  • Did you ever suffer a relapse?
  • Have you ever had serious financial difficulties, legal problems, lose a job or promotion as a result of your addiction?
  • Is your condition inherited? Is your father, mother or some other close relative an addict as well?

Where to Go Next – After You’ve Had the Discussion

If you have a generally good relationship with your spouse, you should feel a great sense of relief that this secret about your addiction is finally out in the open – between the two of you. This takes a tremendous burden off you and, while it’s understandably not something your spouse would be pleased about, the fact that you have revealed it says a lot about your strength of character and integrity – as well as your love. You trust in your spouse’s willingness to accept you for who you are, just as you would be willing to accept anything in his or her past. Another point to be made is that you should ask for your partner’s help in going forward. This gives your spouse the opportunity to acknowledge what it took for you to get this off your chest and to share it with the person you most care about. Your spouse may even say something like this: We can work through this together. Reiterate that recovery is a day to day process, and you appreciate the understanding, consideration and willingness to be a part of it. What happens if your spouse, after you’ve revealed your addiction, says this is something they really can’t deal with? You need to be ready to accept this on the face of it. Very often spouses need some period of time for the knowledge of your addiction to sink in, to come to terms with how they feel about it and whether it compromises your overall relationship to the point of dissolution or separation. Whatever the reaction, you have to be ready for it. If your spouse rejects you – temporarily or permanently – after you talk about your addiction, it doesn’t reflect on you as a person. It doesn’t make you bad or worthless or undeserving of his or her love. It doesn’t mean that your life is over, or that you will suffer an immediate relapse, lose your standing in the community or be rejected by your friends. You should, however, seek the encouragement and support from your aftercare counselor and/or your 12-step group sponsor and members.

A Few Words About Being Open With Friends

Depending on the length and closeness of your friendship, decide when and how to say anything about your addiction. Naturally, if you are an alcoholic in recovery, you will need to avoid circumstances where everyone is drinking. If you’ve been avoiding going to the bar with co-workers who are friends after work on Friday nights, for example, at some point you may wish to say that you’re an alcoholic and you now live a life of sobriety. If you had a problem with marijuana or cocaine and friends light up a joint or snort coke in your presence, the first thing you should do is leave. At another time, you may wish to inform them that you once did drugs but are now sober – and intend to stay that way. Ask them not to do drugs in your presence. Tell them that it may affect your relationship if they continue to do so. Former problem or addicted gamblers can’t take the chance of dropping a few casual bets or buying some Lotto tickets. If friends ask you to get in on the football pool or go to the casino, tell them you don’t bet. You may or may not want to say you were a compulsive gambler. As long as you have received treatment for your addiction and are in recovery, there’s no need to go into detail about your gambling addiction. What’s the point? It will just give them something to talk about – and gossip is not in your best interest. Of course, if you have a very close friend with whom you share many interests, similar outlook and have discussed many confidences, perhaps this is one person that you may wish to tell of your addiction. Weigh and balance what feels right to you and act accordingly.

What About a New Love Interest?

Again, timing is everything. Gauge how receptive the person may be to the revelation and whether you should bring it up at this time. If you do think the time is right, say something simple and direct. I had a problem with heroin (or marijuana or ecstasy or LSD, etc.) in the past, but I’m so glad that’s in my past. I’ve been clean and sober ever since. But, don’t say this unless it is true. If you still have a problem and either haven’t sought treatment, or began it and quit, or have relapsed, maybe this isn’t the time to get involved with someone new. It’s not fair to either of you. And, if you fall into this category, you really need to get some professional help – and pronto.

Attitude is Everything

Finally, having the discussion with others – any others – about your addiction depends a great deal on your attitude. If you are positive, upbeat, and have an openness and straightforward attitude, it will serve you better than if you are down in the dumps, depressed, anxious, and nervous. How you portray yourself to others helps them calculate whether the knowledge of your addiction is something that is truly in your past or something that will potentially bring problems. Look forward to meeting new people and to continued lasting relationships with your current friends. Remember that you are not defined by your addiction. Your life in recovery is what you make it. You are the person you have chosen to be – one who is clean and sober. Your life choices and everyday actions, even your friends, are impacted by this decision to live your life free of addiction. Celebrate that fact and move forward. You will find that you are no longer troubled by how open you can be about your addiction.

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