How do I tell someone I have a problem?

Jessica Kennedy, Mental Health America

Telling someone that you have a problem with alcohol or drugs is incredibly hard.

You may feel like a failure…like normal people can go out and drink a few beers at Oktoberfest, but you can’t handle it because you’re weak.

You’re not a failure, and you’re not weak.

You’re likely going to be scared that people are going to judge you. You’re going to worry they’re going to make other assumptions about you—that you’re promiscuous or stealing or in trouble with the cops.

It’s okay to be scared.

You can plan out what you want to say in advance, but once you get in the situation, it’s hard to find the right words.

Step 1. Find who to tell.

Person Pros Cons 
Best or close friend Close friends are (hopefully) very supportive. They may have first-hand experience watching you use alcohol or drugs, so they will understand the impact. They also may be more open-minded and less judgmental. Your best friend may also have a problem too. Either they may not see what is going on with you, or they may be afraid that you’ll abandon them if you get help or stop. It’s common to form superficial friendships around drugs or drinking, so your friends may not be as caring as they think.
Parents If your parents have a history of being open and understanding and talking about difficult subjects, they may be the right place to go. Your parents may also be the most helpful when it comes to helping you get access to financial resources or navigate your insurance. While not everyone has healthy or supportive parents,  they may be supportive because they love you and want you to be healthy and happy. Your parents probably love you, but parents can react weirdly sometimes. It can be hard to deal with the excessive crying that causes even more shame and guilt, which is normal from someone who cares about you. It’s also possible that your parents punish you in strange ways, thinking that they are helping—there is no guidebook for what is “right.” They also might try to push you toward certain types of treatment (like faith-based services) that aren’t appropriate for you given your beliefs.
Siblings If you have good relationships with your adult siblings, they can be a good “first step” in opening up. They may blend the unconditional love of family with more understanding and less concern than people often get from parental figures . Siblings can also help you navigate the relationship with your parents. Your siblings may feel obligated to tell your parents against your wishes. You also may put them in a bad position, stuck in the middle between you and your parents. This can hurt younger siblings a lot. Siblings also may not have an idea of where to go next.
Another trusted adult (neighbor, aunt/uncle, coach, religious authority, school counselor, teacher) Especially if you are worried about how your parents react, it may be easier to start with someone in a position of authority. It’s also likely that someone like a teacher, a pastor, or a coach may have some supplemental training on what to do in these situations. Unless they’re bound by privacy laws, an adult may feel morally obligated to tell your family what’s going on. And again, they may be at a loss of where to send you.
Your primary care doctor (or P.A. or N.P.) They went to school for years to learn medicine, so they’re going to have a solid understanding of the biological processes at work. And there are a lot of privacy protections around who can see your information related to substance use or alcohol. They also may have the authority to prescribe medication or authorize treatment, and you can avoid the emotional pieces that come with telling family. You’re probably seeing a doctor in primary care who is more used to diagnosing strep throat than dealing with issues like this, so they may be out of their scope of knowledge or expertise. And some doctors may be less understanding, especially if they’re “old school.” A medical doctor may also lack knowledge about the community resources available to support you outside of treatment.
A therapist or counselor A therapist or counselor has specific training and experience in coping and knowing where to go. They’re also likely to understand how to refer you to rehabs or other more intensive treatment. You want to make sure that you find someone who has a specialty in substance use or alcohol. It can be tricky to find a therapist or counselor, especially one in an insurance network. It’s also a very personal relationship where you need time to “click.”
Someone anonymous on the Internet Telling someone online can be a great way to practice because you’re safely anonymous. If you find supportive online communities, you may get help from people with similar experiences.  Have you been on the Internet? It’s not always the best place. Trolls aside, there’s a difference in strangers supporting and comforting you than people you know. 
Someone in recovery You may want to reach out to a member of a recovery group or a person you know in recovery. They could talk to you about their experiences and offer information on community resources. It can be relieving to talk to someone who has been there and has moved beyond into recovery. Lots of recovery communities promote the importance of helping others who are dealing with similar issues. Reaching out to someone you might not know really well or trust with something like this can be really scary. Sometimes other people can be really pushy about things that have worked for them and may make you feel pressured into trying or like there are no other options.

 

Step 2. Figure out what to say.

It’s probably helpful to write things down and anticipate questions in advance. You also may want to practice what to say in front of a mirror. Prepare for people to ask you how long it’s been going on, if you’ve hurt yourself or someone else. You should brace yourself for inappropriate, offensive, and prying questions. For example, it may hurt you if your parents ask if you stole the jewelry that went missing a few months ago. Try to understand that anyone you talk to is probably in a state of shock and isn’t thinking clearly.Step 2. Figure out what to say.

The more you think about how you’re going to answer those in advance, the better prepared you’re going to be in the moment.

Remember it’s always okay to take time to yourself. You can take a deep breath and say, “I don’t feel comfortable sharing that right now. It was already hard enough to say that I needed help.”

Before you start the conversation, think about what you want from the person you’re talking to. Do you want support? Advice? Help finding the next level of treatment? Someone to tell you to grow up and give you “tough love”? It’s okay to communicate that to the person you’re telling.

Step 3. Say it.

This is the hardest part. Try and pick a time when the person or people you want to talk to are alone and comfortable. Ask if it’s a good time to talk to tell them something.

Again, be prepared for the person you’re telling to have an emotional reaction that makes you feel worse. They’re not trying to hurt you—they’re just suddenly shocked by it.

In the event that the person you tell is unsupportive or downright mean, it’s okay to walk away. Not everyone understands how to process things. Even nice people can have hang-ups around drug or alcohol use. That’s because they don’t know any better. If you don’t get help from the first place, try again. It’s hard, but recovery is possible, and the help is worth it.

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