If someone you care about is in recovery from addiction, your support of their choice to stay sober is huge. It can play an incredibly positive role in helping them to remain accountable for their choices and stick to the new principles of sober living they learned while in treatment.
This is sometimes a little more difficult than it sounds, however. Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough, and it can take some time to learn how best to support someone in recovery.
Here are just a few of the things you need to know:
Addiction is a disease. This is important. It means that your friend or loved one is not someone who is living with a character flaw or who is morally impaired. Addiction is both a medical and psychological issue, and long-term use of drugs and alcohol can physically change the size and structure of brain cells. This, in turn, changes the person’s ability to manage impulse control related to substance use and abuse. It is not something that is their “fault,” and the urge to relapse is not something that should be “blamed” on them in any way. Anger at the disease itself is understandable. Anger at and/or blaming the individual is not helpful.
Nagging won’t help. Even though you may feel you are simply being supportive and checking in or encouraging them to make positive choices, if it translates as nagging at someone excessively and becomes a bother, it can actually become a trigger for relapse. This can be confusing to supportive friends and family members who are only trying to help. How can you help your loved one to make positive choices? Check in when it is appropriate, but notice if your interest or concern is garnering more irritation than anything else and be prepared to back off.
You cannot control someone else’s choices. You may feel like, “If you would just let me schedule your appointments, help you apply for jobs, or deal with this or that situation, then it will be easier for you to avoid relapse.” That may even be true. But the fact is that your friend or family member needs to learn how to handle stressors and challenges without drugs and alcohol on their own. Your support is important, but you cannot make someone do something, and trying to force the issue will only serve to cause undue stress.
Just showing up and showing you care is huge. Your interest in helping your friend or loved one in recovery speaks volumes about your character and your hopes for their continued success in recovery. You can have a big impact just by showing up and checking in. Send a text, come over, or invite them out for coffee or for a run. Include them in your life in little ways and invite them to do the same.
Know that not everything has to change. You can still do a lot of the same activities you used to do with your friend or loved one. Though it is not advisable to drink around them, bring them to a bar, or otherwise take them anywhere they will have access to drugs or alcohol, you can still hang out at their house or invite them over, work out together, go grocery shopping together, or just spend time together and have a good time.
Learn to recognize the signs of relapse. Depending on your friend’s drug of choice, relapse signs may vary. Notice when things seem off, especially if that “off” feeling persists, and do not be afraid to speak up.
Listen. As a friend and part of their support system, your loved one needs you to be an available listening ear. That means picking up the phone no matter what the time of day is, answering all texts, and just hearing what they have to say when they need to vent or talk. You do not necessarily have to “fix” anything. Just listening is a big help.
Share what you are going through. Every conversation does not have to be about your friend or family member’s difficulties with substance abuse or their past in addiction. Talk about the things you are facing, what you are worried about, and irritations that come up. Just as you are there for your friend, giving your friend the opportunity to be there for you can help them grow stronger in recovery as well.
Engage in healthy habits with them. Positive lifestyle changes can help your friend to feel better in recovery – physically and psychologically. Little things like choosing to go get a salad instead of getting a pizza, or going for a walk together instead of sitting in a movie theater, can help your friend to make positive lifestyle choices – and it’s good for you too!
Go to support group meetings with them. Your friend likely attends 12-Step meetings, alumni groups, and support groups on an almost daily basis, if not every day. It can get boring after a while, but if you regularly attend one with them, it can be more interesting for them, keep them accountable for showing up, and give you an opportunity to demonstrate your support for their recovery.
Be patient. Recovery is not easy. Sweeping change does not occur overnight. Relapse may happen, and your loved one may not always be completely focused or happy about living in sobriety. This is normal. Sticking by them through the ups and downs can help them to get through whatever may come as they create a new life in recovery.