How to Help an Addict in Recovery?Anna Ciulla
Someone you love or care deeply about has just completed treatment for drug or alcohol abuse, perhaps coupled with depression or anxiety and is coming home. While you want the best for this person’s future, you’re understandably uncertain and a little worried about what you should be doing to help. How should you communicate? What are the key areas to focus on, and what should you steer clear of? Recovery from drugs and alcohol and a mental health disorder is complex. Not only that, it’s the single most difficult challenge anyone can go through – particularly the addict. So, to prepare yourself, the question becomes, how to help an addict in recovery?
LEARN ALL YOU CAN ABOUT ADDICTION
If you want to be there to support an addict in recovery, your first endeavor should be to familiarize yourself on the topic of addiction. Knowing the substance of abuse the individual used or was addicted to is a good start. Absorb all the facts you can on the alcohol or prescription painkillers, marijuana, cocaine or combination of drugs because this knowledge is important to your overall understanding of what he or she is going through in recovery. Co-occurring substance use and mood disorders is also very common, and this dual diagnosis also will continue to require attention during recovery. Some drugs and alcohol cause long-term psychological as well as physical changes, issues the person in recovery will continue to require treatment for while gradually healing. In this way, you’re gaining insight into the recovery process and how to best facilitate your interaction with the person who is in recovery.
For example, you’ll want to know about addiction triggers, cravings, how to avoid being an enabler, current and potential health issues (physical and mental), what’s involved in the recovery process, relapse prevention and relapse, and the need to make profound lifestyle changes to promote ongoing sobriety. Family programs can help. Besides, learning all you can about addiction gives you the confidence you’ll be doing the right things to help an addict in recovery, and such a positive attitude will also be instrumental in the addict’s recovery journey.
ENSURE TREATMENT RECOMMENDATIONS FOLLOWED
If there was dual-diagnosis (co-occurring substance use and mental health disorder, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and more), ongoing treatment involving counseling, medication, family therapy and other behavioral therapies is likely part of the person’s treatment plan. Some individuals in recovery from substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD) may need continued vocational rehab, medication adjustment, different treatment approaches, a stepped-up or stepped down program. You can help the addict in recovery by staying on top of all appointments with counselors, doctors, ensuring that medications are taken at the appropriate times and doses, and staying in touch with his or her treatment team so they’re informed and ready to address any issues that come up.
BE SUPPORTIVE OF TOTAL ABSTINENCE
While your intention is to fully support the addict in recovery – whether this person is a spouse, sibling, child, other relative, or close friend – be aware that the research shows that total abstinence is the safest, most practical, and most effective way to live in successful recovery. When someone is in recovery, even the smallest amount of alcohol or drugs may make symptoms worse. Furthermore, they trigger relapse, which is the last thing you and the recovering addict want to happen.
How can you support total abstinence? Make sure that the home environment (or other environment where you regularly interact with the individual) is free of all alcohol and drugs. Refrain from all alcohol and drug use yourself when in the presence of the recovering addict. Look for and participate in sober recreational and leisure activities with the recovering addict, as this will encourage him/her to develop an interest in a healthier lifestyle and a network of sober friends that is more conducive to long-term recovery.
HELP IN DEVELOPING GOOD COPING SKILLS
An important aspect of treatment the addict spent time learning involved coping skills. This learning process continues during recovery and it’s another area where you can provide a helpful assist. Stressors include dealing with unexpected losses (financial, loss of friends, losing a job), mending or ending a close relationship, going back to work or getting a new job, having to move, dealing with an illness (existing or new, one that may have been made worse by addiction), learning how to resolve personal conflict.
How can you help the addict in recovery develop good coping skills? You likely know this person very well, so you can zero in on the kinds of personal conflicts that may be interfering with his/her recovery. Having you there to talk with, especially with you actively listening, and helping him/her process both negative emotional difficulties and stressful experiences is a tremendously helpful benefit to the addict in recovery. You can also provide suggestions and help implement in solving some of the addict’s stress-related problems – but be careful not to do all the work yourself. Your role is to support and encourage, not enable the addict to shirk responsibilities or avoid dealing with problems.
WORK TO REDUCE FRICTION IN THE FAMILY
Coming home is sometimes difficult, as there may be recurring family friction that could exacerbate a situation that existed prior to the addict entering treatment. Communication with certain family (or extended family) members may be strained, and any or all family members may find it difficult to know what to say to their loved one who’s now back in the home environment. It’s important to recognize that the stress of interpersonal conflicts can trigger relapse of a mental health condition and/or SUD. You can be proactive and help ease tension while being supportive by:
- Developing good communication skills you can use with all family members
- Being flexible and creative when problems arise
- Openly demonstrating how much you care for each other
- Ensuring you spend life-enriching time together, doing things that are enjoyable and mutually affirming
ENCOURAGE PEER SUPPORT GROUP PARTICIPATION
Participation in 12-step or self-help support groups was likely a part of treatment for the addict in recovery. Now that treatment is over, however, cutting back on or discontinuing meeting attendance is like taking a step backwards. The recovering addict needs to interface with peers who are themselves in recovery, since these individuals know all about the potential pitfalls and emotional difficulties experienced during the recovery process. Listening to their stories, realizing that there is no judgment and only support and encouragement by fellow group members, and learning new tips and strategies for coping with life’s daily stressors and problems will be extraordinarily important to continuing sobriety. For this reason, encourage the addict in recovery to continue or get back to participating in peer support groups.
SUPPORT INVOLVEMENT IN MEANINGFUL ACTIVITIES
For life to have meaning to the addict in recovery, it may be necessary to do some things differently. This includes taking a hard look at the kinds of activities previously engaged in, including an examination of how such association with people, places and things either led to or exacerbated addiction. It’s now time to find other activities to partake in, ones that mean something to the individual, that help him/her work toward desirable goals, to get outside problems, meet sober people, engage in healthier behaviors, and feel better about their path forward in sobriety. For example, Harvard Medical Health details research showing that yoga helps modulate the stress response and is effective in treating anxiety and depression. Do what you can to suggest and support involvement in such meaningful activities. This may mean accompanying him/her to the event or activity, and doing so on an ongoing basis. The more the addict in recovery starts to find pleasure and involvement in such healthier and more meaningful activities, the better the prospects for effective recovery.
KNOW THE WARNING SIGNS OF RELAPSE
Relapse is not inevitable, although it does commonly occur during recovery. A study in Systematic Reviews reported that relapse rates for substance and alcohol use disorders are as high as 60-90 percent (60 percent for SUDs and 90 percent for AUDs). The most critical time is the first 90 days to 6 months following treatment, as this is when the recovering addict is still most vulnerable and perhaps unable or unwilling to do what’s best for his or her continuing sobriety. The following warning signs may mean a relapse is imminent or occurring now:
- Past drug use is romanticized
- Makes contact with past drug-using friends
- Displays sudden attitude or behavior changes
- Withdrawal symptoms appear
- Goes to fewer self-help or support group meetings
- Loses interest in activities or hobbies
- Self-care suffers
What should you say or do if the addict in recovery shows signs of relapse? Express your concern in a kind and caring manner, avoiding judgment and blame. Encourage him or her to get in touch with their sponsor, either by phone or meeting in person. Gently suggest it may be time to get to a support meeting. You may also want to encourage contact with the individual’s therapist and, if the situation is really concerning, recommend the addict in recovery go into an intensive outpatient program to solidify his or her commitment to sobriety and get back on track. Continuing care and aftercare programs, along with alumni services are also very effective in helping addicts in recovery. Mindfulness meditation is also helpful in preventing relapse.
MAINTAIN A POSITIVE ATTITUDE
No matter how much you love, care or worry about an addict in recovery, the simple truth is that you cannot make him or her do anything they’re not willing to do. The best you can do is be supportive, encouraging, letting the person know you’re always there to help, and maintaining a positive attitude. Recovery is a process, often with many ups and downs, including partial or full-on relapses on more than one occasion. Relapse is not failure, however, and only means that the addict in recovery needs more time spent learning about the foundational aspects of sobriety. The fact that you’re a constant in this person’s life will mean a lot. In fact, the support of loved ones, family and close friends is one of the two most profoundly important sources of a support network. You are, in fact, instrumental in helping an addict in recovery maintain and/or recover his or her footing in sobriety.
For more about addiction and recovery, check out these articles:
- American Journal of Psychiatry. “Current Status of Co-Occurring Mood and Substance Use Disorders: A New Therapeutic Target.” Retrieved from https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1176/appi.ajp.2012.12010112
- Harvard Medical Health. “Yoga for anxiety and depression.” Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/yoga-for-anxiety-and-depression
- Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. “Continuing Care Research: What We’ve Learned and Where We’re Going.” Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2670779/
- Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. “Promoting recovery in an evolving policy context: What do we know and what do we need to know about recovery support services?” Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3642237/#R75
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Alert.” Retrieved from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa06.htm
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” “Treatment and Recovery.” Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “What is a relapse?” Retrieved from https://easyread.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/node_pdf/61-what-is-a-relapse.pdf
- Psychology of Addictive Behavior. “Classes of substance abuse relapse situations: A comparison of adolescents and adults.” Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3031179/
- Systematic Reviews. “Physical activity and the prevention, reduction, and treatment of alcohol and/or substance use across the lifespan (The PHASE review): protocol for a systematic review.” Retrieved from https://systematicreviewsjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13643-018-0674-0