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How to Support a Loved One in Recovery

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Having a family or friend grappling with addiction can be difficult. It's hard to know what to say and how to help; you may worry about making the wrong move or saying something triggering or offensive. The fear of doing or saying the wrong thing can be immobilizing. Thankfully, supporting a loved one in recovery doesn't have to be complicated. Here are some tried and true steps you can take to help your loved one as they move towards a life of recovery.

Addiction, Recovery, and Family Members

In recovery spaces, most of the emphasis is on the individual who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. However, entire families and family systems suffer when their loved one is actively using. Usually, the pain is unintentional and is often a product of witnessing a loved one struggling to overcome the need for their drug of choice, the effects of the drug, and the harrowing withdrawals.

Many family members will do their best to support their loved ones through interventions, counseling, and simply being there through the hard times. However, for those family members and friends who haven't experienced addiction, it can be confusing to understand why their loved one is suffering so much and why they can’t simply stop using a substance that is causing so much harm. 

It's hard to know what to say or how to say it when you have never experienced a debilitating, life-altering addiction. Some family members, in their fear and lack of knowledge, may feel like the person should just “get over it” or “just quit” without fully realizing what they’re asking or how complex and all-encompassing addiction can be.

When you see your loved one move toward a place of recovery, hopeful but cautious optimism starts to materialize. Seeing them make progress and increase their abstinence skills can be exciting. But it can also be fraught with worry. You don't want to see them slide back into old behaviors, and you’re constantly on alert to make sure they head down the right path.

5 Ways to Help Your Loved One in Recovery

First, it's great that you want to help your family member or friend recover. Supportive friends and family are a massive resource for somebody in sobriety. Here are some of the best ways you can support them.

1. Be a Listening Ear

While you may not be able to empathize with what they're going through, being sympathetic and trying to learn about their experience is often hugely beneficial for someone in recovery—listening, letting them process, and being there if they need to talk or work through their emotions. 

Addiction is often a very lonely disease, and many isolate themselves from friends and family out of fear of shame or judgment. These relationships can take time to rebuild and can be awkward initially. Let your loved one know that you want to understand what they’re going through and repair the relationship (if necessary).

2. Learn as Much as You Can

There is still a lot of misinformation and stigma about the nature of drug and alcohol addiction. One of the best ways to combat this in your relationship with a recovering addict is to learn as much as you can about addiction and recovery. Getting informed about the disease model of addiction and how people become dependent on drugs and alcohol is an excellent first step toward empathy and understanding.

3. Have Strong Boundaries

Boundaries often erode in addiction. Because of the nature of drug and alcohol abuse, families can become highly codependent or, paradoxically, completely distant. As your loved one moves towards their recovery journey, it's vital to establish your own personal boundaries as you rebuild the relationship.

Only you can know your boundaries and what will happen if they are violated. Meditating on this before you tell your friend or family member will help solidify your boundaries and enable you to hold strong to them. Having firm personal limits allows your family member to feel safe having their own boundaries as well. It may seem counterintuitive, especially for families embroiled in chaos and codependence, but steadfast, healthy boundaries benefit the entire family system.

4. Ask How They Want to Be Helped

Recovery looks different for everybody. What works for one person will not work for another. Often, it's good to check in with your loved one and ask them what helps them on their recovery journey. Do they want you to just be there with them and do safe, sober activities together? Do they want you to attend a meeting with them or even try family counseling? How can you ask about their recovery without them feeling pestered, belittled, or put on the spot?

Asking what will help your specific loved one will be the best thing you can do for them. And when they tell you what they need, truly listen without trying to assume you know better. Successful recovery is particular to the individual, and each person recovers on their own time and in their own way.

5. Encourage Them to Seek Support

You don't need to be your loved one's only support system. It's recommended that those in recovery foster an entire network of safe, sober, supportive people. This can include support group members, allies in recovery, friends, family members, and substance abuse counselors. Many people find that having a dedicated substance abuse counselor who is trained and knowledgeable about the disease of addiction can be a tremendous support in early recovery and beyond.

You can also seek support if you would like, as there is a large network of support groups for families of those who are in recovery (or in need of recovery) from an addiction. Look for an Al-anon meeting in your area to meet others who can relate to your situation and provide guidance and advice to navigate the difficult waters of caring for an addicted love one.

About the Author

Scott H. Silverman is a high-profile expert on addiction and recovery, making frequent public and media appearances for the last 40 years. He is the author of The Opioid Epidemic, and the Founder and CEO of Confidential Recovery, a San Diego substance abuse treatment center specializing in helping Veterans and First Responders get and stay sober.

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