Support from friends and family is crucial to the person’s success in recovery. It may be difficult to know exactly how to provide that support in a time of crisis.
According to current statistics, an approximate 23 million people are in addiction recovery in the United States. Recovery, in any modality – inpatient, outpatient, 12-step, or otherwise – can be an emotionally, mentally, and physically challenging experience for the person seeking to break the grip of addiction, and for their friends and family. Recovery holds special challenges for the latter group, who have seen their loved ones struggle with addiction, and in some cases, may have endured negative experiences because of that addiction.
However, support from those around the addicted individual is crucial to their success in recovery. It may be difficult to know exactly how to provide that support in a time of crisis. Following are 10 ways you can support a family member or friend as they take their first steps in recovery.
1. Supporting isn’t enabling – know the difference.
Cynical wisdom may suggest that any support for an addict is enabling their behavior. However, the two actions are not the same: support is offering help while maintaining healthy boundaries, while enabling is support at the expense of your own well-being. Support requires honesty, while enabling excuses and even participates in addictive behavior (“he/she can’t help it”). And support allows you to question addictive behavior while maintaining love and affection; enabling strangles healthy inquiry for fear of reprisal or recrimination.
2. Educate yourself on recovery.
Misinformation is a hot button topic of late, and the addiction and recovery worlds are no stranger to misguided, judgmental, and just plain wrong material in both print and online form as well. So it’s important that you know a few facts as your loved one undergoes recovery: addiction is not a sign of physical, mental, or moral weakness. It’s an imbalance in the chemical components of the brain which undoes impulse control and leaves the individual with a neural road map studded with triggers that, when tripped, set off addictive behavior, often without the individual’s conscious choice. It’s also important to understand that relapse is a common occurrence with individuals in recovery: there is no such thing as a “cure” for addiction. Understanding these core truths provides you with a foundation for a fuller and more accurate picture of the struggles your loved one is facing.
3. Communicate clearly and without judgment.
Remember that it’s okay to ask your loved one how they are feeling, and let them know that they can communicate with you as well. Assuring them that they can speak without fear of judgment allays a lot of concerns experienced by individuals in recovery. If they seem unsure of how to begin the conversation, give them a question that allows them to elaborate on their feelings, rather than a yes/no query (“Are you feeling all right?”). Though you may also experience anxiety about your loved one’s condition, try to avoid an interrogatory tone when asking about their well-being. Be honest: saying that you’re unsure or uncomfortable, but that you still want to ask about them, is the sort of honesty they crave. Choosing words that don’t carry a lot of negative freight helps, too: some people don’t mind the words “addict” or “rehab,” but your loved one may feel like those terms carry a stigma.
4. Help them build good coping skills.
External and internal stressors play havoc with everyone’s sense of well-being, but for individuals in the grip of addiction, or in the process of recovery, they can lead to a relapse. Your loved one will hopefully learn many ways to contend with stress while in recovery, but there’s simply no way to completely remove all stressors from life. Illness, personal loss, professional changes, and even differences in daily routines can all spark a stressful response. You can help by listening to your loved one when they feel stressed, and help them process and address their feelings. Discuss practical ways to solve those stressors, if possible, as well as coping mechanisms they’ve learned as part of their recovery.
5. Know the signs of relapse.
Relapse is a common occurrence during and after recovery. The National Institute for Drug Abuse notes that 40 to 60 percent of individuals with a substance addiction will relapse. To that end, it’s important for loved ones to first understand what a relapse is. From a clinical standpoint, relapse occurs when a clinical condition that had previously improved experiences a sudden decline. In terms of addiction, that typically means a return to substance use. Relapses are not only troubling in terms of the individual’s emotional and mental wellbeing, but they also pose physical danger: tolerance levels drop for many people who abstain from substance use over an extended period of time, and returning to drug use may lead to an overdose.
Relapses don’t appear without provocation. The typical signs of relapse began with a change in the individual’s outlook: they may seem more negative about recovery, or downbeat about their existence. Old patterns of behavior may return: they may have mood swings, bursts of anger, or resistance to taking responsibility for their actions. From there, the individual withdraws from help, turning away from family, friends, and the support provided by recovery. Return to actual substance use is usually sparked by an emotional conflict of some kind; it could be a major issue, like family clashes or exposure to addictive substances, or it could be a less combustive concern, such as apathy, depression, or an encounter with a location where addictive behavior took place.
If relapse occurs, it’s natural for both you and your loved one to feel a lot of emotions: anger, shame, grief, and even despondency. It’s important for you to follow some of the guidelines mentioned here: establish boundaries, listen to your loved one, offer support where you can without enabling, and most importantly, understand that relapse isn’t failure. Your loved one has experienced a setback, and needs to return to treating the disease.