Things NOT to Say to People in Recovery who have Chronic Illness

By MichKelly8 02/01/21

Six years into my recovery from substance misuse, I was diagnosed with chronic illness, including ME and fibromyalgia. I had been battling with the debilitating symptoms for over a year, trying my best to get by without over-reliance on opioid based painkillers, not least because in the rooms of 12 step recovery I was reminded often that I 'wasn't really clean' if I was relying on painkillers, prescribed or not. It was comments like this, among others, that fuelled this article (and my exit from the rooms.)

According to the World Health Organisation, chronic illness and disease is on the rise. That means more people in the rooms of recovery who may be suffering with some variation of chronic illness, from diabetes to fibromyalgia to multiple sclerosis. Battling with daily and debilitating symptoms is hard enough without having to deal with all the misinformation that flies around, and sadly, particulary among 12 steppers, there are certain nuggets of foolishness that seem to regularly do the rounds. If you are in recovery and know someone in the rooms who has a chronic illness, here are the things not to say if you want to be helpful.

1) You don't need those medications.

As mentioned above, there is a worrying tendency among those in abstinence-based recovery to label all medications as 'mind-altering substances' and view them with suspicion, particularly opioid based painkillers. Of course, these medications come with risks and many people, especially those with a history of heroin use or similar, may well require other options. However, this is a decision for the individual involved to make along with their medical professional, not Johnny who makes the tea at Tuesday AA. Stopping medication without medical supervision, or not taking strongly recommended medication, can have real and long-lasting effects. So in short, unless you are a medical professional and the person involved is your patient, kindly mind your own business.

2) Just work the steps on it.

This often follows number one. There is no doubt that some people find it beneficial to 'work the steps' on everything and anything, and there is indeed a Chronic Pain Anonymous that utilises a 12 step programme. Unless the individual involved has already expressed an interest in this approach however, its likely that your advice will not be appreciated. Personally, no amount of listing my defects and confessing them to another is going to help my symptoms. If the 12 steps worked for chronic illness, they would be on prescription already.

3) Think positive.

This is an odd one, because positive psychology is often at odds with the 12 step core principle of ego-deflation, yet 'positive thinking' is everywhere in popular culture and that includes recovery. Of course, a positive attitude can help, as can focusing on one's strengths and blessings, but taken to its extreme, the positive thinking mantra can actually lead to anxiety or to silencing those who need to tell the truth about what they're feeling. This type of pseudo-psychology (as distinguished from the genuine positive psychology movement) is often tied up with New Thought and New Age ideas about manifestation, such as the perennially popular 'The Secret.' Unfortunately, no evidence shows that it works. No amount of thinking positive is going to get rid of someone's diabetes, and they didn't 'manifest' it by thinking negative thoughts, either.

4) It's just like addiction; you're powerless.

Almost the total opposite to number three, this little gem of wisdom likes to invoke Step One and suggest a similarity between addiction and whatever chronic disease the person is experiencing. First of all, there isn't anything particularly comforting in being reminded that you can't do anything about your illness, particularly for those who are newly diagnosed and still processing their acceptance of it. It's also, in my opinion, insulting, because while Step One teaches powerlessness, it by definition leads to the other steps, which supposedly provide a solution. No matter how much powerlessness is preached in the rooms, the fact is that ardent 12 steppers believe that if someone feels a relapse into substance misuse is imminent, a meeting, some prayer, and a phone call to their sponsor can prevent it. This just doesn't apply to chronic illness. When I feel a fibro flare coming on, no amount of meetings, prayers and phone calls to 'another recovering addict' are likely to help.

5) It's just like addiction; it's a disease

This is the one that motivates the others (except perhaps number three). Parallels are drawn between recovery from chronic illness and recovery from substance misuse because of the underlying assumption that addiction is a disease and therefore functions like one. Perhaps nothing so much as having an actual, medically defined chronic illness has highlighted the flaws of the 'disease model' of addiction to me. While my ailments are admittedly hard to treat, I would think my consultant was a complete quack if she suggested belief in God, confession of my wrongs, prayer and tea-making as a treatment plan. Let's face it, no other disease would be so treated.

It's almost like addiction isn't, in fact, a disease, isn't it?


Join the conversation, become a Fix blogger. Share your experience, strength, and hope, or sound off on the issues affecting the addiction/recovery community. Create your account and start writing: