Family, friends, and other loved ones play an integral role in the recovery process. In fact, whether or not someone has support from their peers and the people around them at home can ultimately predict if they remain sober long-term or relapse.
The catch? Simply providing support isn’t always enough. If you aren’t aware of the challenges associated with healing, or you struggle with enabling them or becoming codependent, you might be doing more harm than good.
You want to be the very best support you can be – without putting you or your loved one at risk. Forge a more positive path forward by getting to know the challenges of recovery, what to expect, and what to avoid.
1. Educated Yourself About Addiction
Addiction is an incredibly complex topic, and what works for one person won’t necessarily always work for another. That’s why it’s so important to learn as much as you can about addiction topics, including detox, withdrawal, psychological impacts, and sobriety from day one.
Not sure where to start? DrugAbuse.gov has an incredible database filled with information on the science of addiction and addiction statistics. Mayo Clinic’s Drug Addiction resources are also in-depth, providing you with knowledge on everything from signs of drug use to what to do if someone experiences an overdose.
2. Be Accepting
Few people actively desire to be addicted. Virtually no one picks up a drink, a pill, or some other street drug with the express goal of getting addicted. Instead, addiction is caused by a myriad of influences ranging from trauma to genetic susceptibility.
Try your best to be non-judgemental and accepting of the addict in your life. Remind them that they aren’t “bad” and shouldn’t feel guilty for being addicted; it can happen to virtually anyone at any time. Remember that there is a very big difference between loving guidance and harsh criticism; err on the side of the former at all times.
You can also use your acceptance to help counter the addict’s own self-deprecating comments. For example, if the person says “I’m nothing but a worthless drunk,” you might say “You are not worthless. Alcoholism is common and you’re taking steps to heal. I’m so proud of you for that.”
3. Don’t Enable
While it might seem contradictory to the previous point, it is possible to be too accepting of the wrong behaviors, PsychCentral writer Kurt Smith, Psy.D, defines support as “doing things that help facilitate them gaining control of their behaviors and life.” This is in contrast to enabling, which prevents someone from dealing with the consequences of their actions.
Need an example? Let’s say you live with an addict who has simply stopped handling any personal responsibilities at home. You step in and take over – after all, it has to be done.
In support, your assistance is temporary with the goal of helping the addict regain control and handle their own responsibilities. Maybe you handle everything for a month while they’re in rehab, working with them to facilitate their ability to take over once they’re back home. Or, maybe you just help them find ways to make handling responsibilities easier – like making a budget.
If, on the other hand, it’s suddenly nine months later and you are still handling all of the responsibilities – and they’re showing no desire to take over again – you may be enabling their irresponsibility instead. If you constantly bail them out when they drop the ball, why bother to regain control and become responsible again?
4. Know That Relapse Is Common
Recovery is a life-long process, and many, many people relapse once – or even two or three or four times – before they “get it right.” Even people who have been sober for a decade can encounter difficult life situations that cause them to relapse.
Never shame, deride, or otherwise bully an addict about relapses, and do your best to avoid all-or-nothing demands (e.g., “If you relapse I’ll kick you out and never speak to you again!”) Instead, create an environment where they trust you enough to tell you if they’ve slipped – because that’s the best way to help them get back on track.
5. Cultivate a Substance-Free Life
Seeing someone you love use can be very difficult sobriety. It reminds the person who is addicted what they’re missing. Over time, they may begin to rationalize “just one more use,” or they may even start to think they aren’t addicted at all. These thought patterns are a textbook part of addiction, and they’re almost always present.
You can help by creating a safe, sober environment free from temptations at home. Either hide or remove all traces of drugs and alcohol. Replace them with safer sober alternatives. Host sober parties and get-togethers to ensure they have the opportunity to socialize without being triggered.
Want to take your support a step forward? Consider changing your normal activities (e.g., going to the bar) to a sober alternative (e.g., seeing a play or hitting up a local sober bar event) whenever you spend time together.
6. Get Sober Support for Yourself
Sometimes, friends and loved ones will neglect their own needs out of a selfless desire to be there for an addict day and night. This sounds delightfully wonderful at first, but it’s a one-way ticket to burnout and stress. You have to take care of yourself and manage your own mental health, too! The old adage of, “you have to love yourself before you can love someone else” certainly applies.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for support, whether that means going to solo therapy, visiting an Al-Anon group, or just joining an online support community for people who love someone in addiction. Doing so can be a valuable way to improve your own life while also gaining peer support, incredible advice, and a neutral place to vent.
Lastly (and perhaps, most importantly), become a good listener. Often, what addicts need most is just someone to listen and really hear what they’re going through. You may not understand how they feel, but you can still empathize with the person and recognize how difficult it is for them to talk about it. Feeling safe enough to reveal their struggles can be one of the most healing, motivating experiences.