Chances are good that you know someone who’s recovering from substance use disorder (SUD) and could benefit from your support. Maybe they’re a close family member or friend, or maybe it’s someone you don’t know as well.
According to a national survey in 2019, 20.4 million Americans had experienced a substance use disorder over the past year. And data from the previous year showed that only about one tenth of individuals with an SUD received the treatment they needed.
Alcohol or substance dependency can be a destructive illness that keeps someone from living the life they want. Fortunately, with consistent treatment and compassionate support, it’s possible – and common – for people to recover from addiction and get back on track with their health, relationships and goals.
So how can you help someone who’s recovering from substance abuse disorder? Here are seven tips to keep in mind as you support someone in their recovery journey.
1. Take care of yourself, too
Having problems with substance use is a chronic illness. It not only affects the person who is suffering, but everyone close to them. Family and friends often place the needs of their loved one above their own. That can result in a lack of self-care, increased illness and sometimes struggles with depression and anxiety.
Taking care of your own physical, emotional and mental needs first will make you better equipped to help your loved one through the difficult journey of recovery. As the old phrase goes, You can’t pour from an empty cup. There are also many support groups for families that can provide care and community as you navigate this challenging role.
2. Remember that addiction is a disease
Drugs and alcohol can rewire the brain, disrupting function and leading to dependency. It results in a distorted value system that shifts toward supporting ongoing substance use.
It’s natural to get frustrated with your loved one when you see them doing something that’s harmful to their health. For your own well-being, you may occasionally need to limit your contact if that person is actively using substances or alcohol.
But be wary of making them feel like an outcast. This can lead to feelings of shame and make them less comfortable reaching out for support. After they enter recovery, when it feels appropriate, you can slowly open up more communication with them. Try to understand how substance misuse became a routine part of their life and ask how you can best support them.
3. Recognize that there’s a lot to learn about substance use disorder
Experiencing feelings of fear, worry and anger are understandable and normal for someone on the sidelines trying to support a loved one. As with any other chronic illness, the more informed you are the better you will be able to support them. You can help them, and yourself, by seeking more education.
Learn more about substance use disorder, interventions, treatment methods and mental health terms to use, and which to avoid. And recognize that now is not the time to nag or lecture your loved one about what they should have done in the past or how things could have been better.
Seek professional help on how to approach your loved one about their substance use so they can get the proper treatment. Assistance in Recovery is one resource in our community that offers advocates who can help coach you on the best ways to do this. They can also explain the variety of treatment options out there for your loved one – many of which include the involvement of family and other supporters.
We’re here when you need us. HealthPartners has alcohol and substance use recovery treatment programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin:
- Regions Hospital Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (ADAP) in St. Paul, Minn. | 651-254-4804
- Hudson Hospital & Clinic Programs for Change in Hudson, Wis. | 715-531-6755
- Westfields Hospital & Clinic Programs for Change in New Richmond, Wis. | 715-243-2900
- Amery Hospital & Clinic Programs for Change in Amery, Wis. (opening 2018) | 715-268-0060
- If you or a loved one is facing a substance use and/or a mental health problem, you can call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) for free, confidential help and referrals 24/7, 365 days a year.
4. Be careful not to use your love and comfort against them
Being in a close relationship with someone who is actively using alcohol or other substances can be very challenging. But saying things like, “If you loved me, you’d quit,” is damaging behavior that almost never works. Instead, convey your concerns with your loved one. Say, “I love you. How can I help you in your recovery?” Remind them often that you are willing to be their recovery support. Remind them that they’re valued, they can do this, and they’re not alone.
5. Know that you can give recovery support without enabling addiction
Severe substance use disorder can put a strain on or deplete someone’s finances. It can bring up legal troubles, put people in physical danger and lead to all sorts of other problematic scenarios.
Family and friends tend to try to protect their loved one from those consequences, but that often has the unintended effect of enabling the substance abuse to get worse. People in early recovery typically need emotional and material support. This support is helpful and healthy, but it’s important to let them know you will only be supporting their recovery efforts – nothing else. Focus on supporting your loved one’s healthy, future goals, such as continuing education or finding a job.
6. Understand that they must learn from their mistakes
Supporters for people struggling with addiction often wish they could do more to help, and it can be tempting to try. Allow the person to learn how to gracefully reject tempting offers by themselves. And let them develop the ability to speak about their problems with substance use without shame. Your role in their support circle is to help them if they slip, as well as giving them love and encouragement.
7. Be prepared for recovery support to be a lifelong process
Remember that change is gradual and may have ups and downs. A multi-year study of people with substance use disorder showed that only about a third of recovering individuals who had been sober for less than a year remained abstinent.
That means two out of three people who are recovering from an addiction will likely relapse within their first year of recovery. But as time goes on in sobriety, the chances for relapse drops. And relapses are not an indication of failure. Instead, they are a sign that the method of treatment needs to be changed.
Your loved one might relapse several times before finding an effective treatment method that keeps them on track. Stability in life is difficult to achieve for anyone. So continue to be supportive of your loved one’s efforts. And remember that millions of people who were once experiencing alcohol or other substance dependence are now living happy and fulfilling lives.