7 tips for supporting loved ones who are recovering from addiction

5/9/2019

May 2019

Article by Brian Francis, Clinical Substance Abuse Counselor
Programs for Change, Amery Hospital & Clinic 


As a Clinical Substance Abuse Counselor, I’ve worked with a number of individuals and their loved ones in recovery from chemical dependency. Chemical dependency is a family disease and impacts not only the person that’s using, but also those who surround them. I’ve worked in the chemical dependency field since 2013 helping both adolescents and adults. One of the most common questions I’m asked by loved ones is “What can I do to help?”

Chances are you know someone who is recovering from addiction and could use your support. Maybe it’s a close family member or friend. Maybe it’s a colleague. Or maybe it’s someone you know – but don’t know too well.

A national survey from 2016 found that around 1 in 10 Americans age 12 or older had used an illicit drug in the past 30 days. The same study found that 1 in 15 Americans had been heavy alcohol users over the course of the month. And sadly, with abuse of prescription painkillers and heroin continuing to rise, it’s unlikely that these stats have gotten any better.

So how can you support a recovering addict?

When someone you care about is living with addiction, there will always be obstacles to overcome. Not every situation will have clear answers. Some choices will be hard to make. Still others will have ultimatums that are hard to keep. Remember: “It’s not about catching them when they fall. Rather, it’s reaching out a hand to them so they can get back up.”

Here are 7 tips to keep in mind as you support your loved one in their recovery journey:

1. Take care of yourself first.

Having significant problems with substance use is a chronic illness. It not only affects the person who is using, but everyone close to them. Family and friends often place the needs of their loved one above their own. That results in a lack of self-care, increased illness and sometimes struggles with depression and anxiety. Taking care of your own physical, emotional, spiritual and mental needs will leave you better able to help your loved one through the difficult journey of recovery.

2. Remember that they’re human, not a monster.

Addiction is a disease. It results in a distorted value system that shifts toward supporting ongoing substance use. It is OK to get frustrated or angry with your loved one and, for your own well-being, you may need to limit your contact if your loved one is actively using. But be wary of treating the person like an outcast or a disgrace to the family. This can shame your loved one and interfere with them reaching out for support. Once they enter recovery, though, communicate with them and try to understand how substance misuse became a routine part of their life.

3. Realize there is a lot about substance abuse to learn.

Having feelings of fear, worry and anger is understandable and normal. As with any other chronic illness, the more informed you are the better you will be able to support your loved one. You can help them, and yourself, by educating yourself. Learn more about substance use disorder, interventions, treatment methods and recovery programs by visiting Al-Anon.org, AmericanAddictionCenters.org and Alcohol.org. And know that now is not the time to nag, preach or lecture your loved one about what they should have done, how things could have been better or how wrong they are. Seek help on how to approach your loved one about their addiction so they can get treatment for it by contacting a local mental health therapist or the Behavioral Health Center at 715-268-0060.

HealthPartners alcohol and substance abuse recovery treatment programs in Wisconsin and Minnesota include:
  • Amery Hospital & Clinic Programs for Change in Amery, Wis. | 715-268-0060
  • 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
  • Regions Hospital Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (ADAP) in St. Paul, Minn. | 651-254-4804

4. Be careful not to use your love and comfort as a weapon.

Being in a close relationship with someone who is addictively using substances can be very challenging. But saying things like, “If you loved me, you’d quit,” is destructive behavior that almost always backfires. Instead, convey your concerns with your love. Remind your loved one often that you are willing to be their recovery support and that they’re not alone. Tell them that you love them enough to see them live. At the same time, continue to remind yourself that it’s OK to set limits with your loved one. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for another person is to allow them to experience the consequences of their actions. This does not mean you are punishing your loved one. It does mean, however, that you are no longer shielding them from the results of their behavior.

5. Know that you can give recovery support without enabling their addictions.

Severe substance use disorder can put a strain on or deplete people’s finances. It can bring up legal troubles. It can put people in physical danger. And it can lead to all sorts of other problematic scenarios. Family and friends tend to try to protect the person who is using from those consequences. But that often has the unintended effect of helping the addiction get worse. People in early recovery typically need emotional and material support in early recovery. This support is helpful and healthy, but 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 they must learn from their mistakes.

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. It’s also to continue giving them love and encouragement.

7. Be prepared for recovery support being a lifelong process.

Remember that change is gradual and may have ups and downs. A multi-year study of people with addiction showed that only about a third of recovering individuals who had been sober for less than a year remained abstinent. That means 2 out of 3 recovering addicts will likely relapse within their first year of recovery. 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 a treatment method that works for them to stay on track. Stability in life is difficult to achieve – even for sober people! So continue to be supportive of your loved one’s efforts. Millions of people who were once struggling with destructive problems of alcohol or other substance dependence are now living happy, fulfilling and productive lives.

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