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How (And Whether) to Tell Your Boss, Colleagues, Spouse, or Anyone Else About Your Substance Use Disorder

Audra Franchini

Authored by Audra Franchini

Many people view drug or alcohol use, misuse, or addiction as a moral failing or weakness, but this simply isn’t true. Regardless, recent medical advances in diagnosis and treatment, as well as the scientific classification of these issues as “Substance Use Disorders,” has not had the hoped-for effect in decreasing the negative labeling and stigma. If you have such a disorder yourself, especially if you doubt it’s “showing” yet, you may wonder whether it’s possible to get sober without telling anyone else you have a problem.

Truthfully, trying to keep it secret from everyone is usually a bad idea for the following reasons:

  • Chances are it’s not the secret you hope it is. Those who know you have probably noticed signs of the problems, even if they haven’t said anything yet. Far more often than not, the person with a substance use disorder is the last one to realize it.
  • If you’re determined no one else should find out, the seemingly obvious approach is to “just quit”— to try to detox on your own —rather than getting professional help. Self-detox is extremely dangerous because medical assistance is not immediately available if serious, even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms develop.
  • Even if you succeed in stopping without help, you’re depriving yourself of medical advice and moral support that would improve your chances of staying in recovery.

That said, there’s no need to broadcast your substance use disorder far and wide unless you intend to become a recovery spokesperson, and that’s not a decision to make in your first year of recovery! Chances are you have acquaintances or colleagues who aren’t fully aware of your substance use disorder, and some may think less of you if they find ou— or might even actively use it against you.

Here’s a list of contact circles you may — or may not — want to inform, with tips on how to decide and start the conversations.

Your boss. Legally, your employer can’t fire or discriminate against you for having a substance use disorder. Practically, biases about addiction can hurt your career in many subtle ways. Even if your supervisor has no conscious doubts about you, knowing that an addiction exists may be the unconscious tipping point when you’re one of several being considered for promotion.Nonetheless, it’s unlikely you can hide the truth from your superiors, unless you find outpatient care that never interferes with your work schedule and can otherwise continue working in all the old familiar ways. Sometimes, though rarely, health insurance records that show you used your insurance to pay for treatment can be accessed by those who are self-incurred. If you aren’t comfortable with or don’t trust your immediate supervisor, go to the head of HR or to the most understanding person you know among the higher-ups and explain your plan to get treatment to stop a budding problem. Then, once in recovery, go out of your way to be the most responsible employee you can be, while aiming not to overwork, get stranded at alcohol-serving office parties, or other stresses that might tempt you to relapse.

Your coworkers. If your coworkers are also good friends, and you feel you can confide in them safely, they can become invaluable members of your support network. However, if your office tends to be competitive, keep the circle of awareness small or someone will likely use your recovery status against you. If your work atmosphere is very difficult or hostile, consider changing jobs — with or without your disorder being known, this kind of stress can make anyone’s life more difficult.

Your household. With a few exceptions, it’s unlikely you’ve kept your spouse or intimate partner (or anyone else who shares a home with you) from knowing about your substance use, so don’t keep them in the dark about your treatment or recovery – unless there’s a clear reason why you think it would be harmful to you. Instead, you can engage them as allies, have a heart-to-heart talk about your disorder, the issues it may have caused, how you intend to get treatment and change your behavior, and how they can support you. Invite them to join you in family therapy so you can all recover together.

If they balk at supporting you, talk with your recovery therapist about finding other ways to handle your home situation.

Your extended family. With relatives you see less often, how much to tell them is best determined by the overall nature of your relationship.

  • If you’ve always been close, you may want to tell them the truth: you’ll need their support on the recovery journey.
  • If your relationship is friendly but casual, let the situation be your guide. You may want to provide a brief explanation if they ask why you aren’t having champagne at the family holiday gathering. Keep in mind that when asked why you aren’t drinking, the answer “I choose not to” is sufficient.
  • If there are any toxic elements in your relationship — the parent who always finds something to criticize, the cousin who still hasn’t forgiven you for that high-school incident — get advice from a sponsor or therapist on whether and how to proceed. And be prepared to make amends for anything that was your fault.

Your friends and acquaintances. Hopefully, you have a few close friends with whom you can talk about anything: they should be among the first people you tell about your problem and enlist for long-term support. More casual friends and acquaintances probably don’t need to know the details — though if someone has always sent you a bottle of wine for Christmas, you’ll be better off simply asking for something else this year.

A good general rule: Be frank about your disorder with the people you most trust and whose support you most want. Keep everyone else on a need-to-know basis.

And above all, be honest with yourself. You’ve taken the first step by acknowledging you have a substance use disorder, getting treatment and committing to change. Keep telling yourself the truth about your strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll be well on the way to long-term recovery!

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, we can help. Call 1-800-Recovery today to learn more and get started.

Authored by

Audra Franchini

Audra Franchini

Audra Franchini holds a Bachelor's Degree in Creative Writing & English. As RCA's Communications Manager, Audra creates impactful content for RCA's website, advertisements, and internal and external communications to drive awareness to the disease of addiction and the importance of seeking help.
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