Being close to someone with an addiction can be one of life’s most difficult emotional challenges. You know intuitively that you are important to them and their recovery, yet you feel powerless to help. You want to do everything you can, but you don’t want to make the wrong moves—and you have to take care of yourself, too.
Although the situation is fraught, you’re not alone. Here are some of the things you can do to help someone in recovery—things you can say, things you can do, things to know, and things to remember—as you move forward in partnership with your family member, friend, or loved one in recovery.
Things to Know About Recovery
If you’ve already lived through realizing this person has an addiction and getting them into treatment, you’re probably pretty familiar with what addiction looks like. However, you might not be as certain about what a person in recovery looks like. The fact is, rehab and treatment are really just the beginning of the recovery process, which lasts for life.
A person who has an addiction but is in recovery takes certain actions that you can recognize:
- Copes with challenges and problems without using alcohol or drugs, and without becoming overly upset or stressed out;
- Is entirely honest with at least one person;
- Identifies and enforces personal boundaries, and separates their problems from those of others;
- Takes time for self-care, mental, emotional, and physical.
If this sounds like your loved one, you’re right to think they’re in recovery. However, just because a person has completed a rehab program doesn’t mean that they’re really recovering. If they don’t really take any of these actions, have an honest talk with them about where they are in their process.
Things You Can and Cannot Do
You’re here to support your family member or friend in recovery, and you’re eager to help. There are lots of things you can do to help—and a few things you can’t do. Get them straight before you begin.
You can’t force anyone to stop using
Maybe you did an intervention, and maybe it worked, but in the end, only the addict can decide that they are going to stop using. Even if you have the power to commit someone for involuntary treatment, it won’t keep them sober if they’re not committed to that goal. This is something that is out of your control. But . . .
You can talk about it
You’re not in charge of the addict’s behavior, but you can talk to them about the problem, both before and during recovery. An open dialogue and a lack of judgment may be the best way to influence their behavior. They have to know that coming to you won’t be painful each and every time; shame and guilt are not conducive to recovery and healing.
You can create a sober, clean atmosphere
You can’t stop them from using, but you can create a clean and sober atmosphere that will be comfortable and safe for them. For most addicts there is no real moderation that works, so keeping the scene totally sober works best.
You can’t recover for them
Recovering is a lot of work. Even if you see your friend or loved one relapsing, you can’t carry them over the hump. They have to do the work themselves, no matter how much slack you’d like to pick up for them. However . . .
You can help them follow all recovery and treatment recommendations
After rehab, most patients have a long-term treatment plan to follow. This is even more complex for patients with co-occurring disorders, such as those who are fighting both addiction and something like depression. A comprehensive plan for treatment can incorporate lots of elements, which means it might be tough to manage on your own, especially if you’ve been on your own: individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, medical/pharmacological treatments, case management, and vocational rehabilitation might all be on the menu for your loved one.
Empower them to keep up with their program. Help them manage a calendar and give them a ride if they need one. Remind them to take medications on time. Encourage them to go to meetings and seek out other support. When you’re feeling very distracted and trying to stay out of your head, it’s easy to forget something.
Things Not to Say—And Better Options
Sometimes you just want to show your support and say the right thing to your loved one in recovery. That’s easier said than done! Navigating recovery, especially if you’ve never been through it yourself, can feel like making your way through a minefield. Here are some common things that people say that you should definitely avoid, and some much better options to try.
No: “How long have you been sober?” or “Are you better now?/Are you cured?”
Better: “How are things going? What’s new?”
Ask open-ended questions that show you care and be ready to listen. Not everyone in recovery wants to share all of the details of what it’s like all the time—and that’s okay. Support them by avoiding asking too much, and by signaling that you’re there to listen when they’re ready. Also, most addicts recognize that a permanent cure isn’t realistic.
No: “I’m glad that’s over, you were a really mean drunk.”
Better: “Now that you’re in recovery, I hope there’s a chance for us to talk about what happened.”
You definitely do not have to lie about or conceal your feelings; if the addict has hurt you, you shouldn’t pretend it didn’t happen, or act like a different person—the drunk or high version of them—did it, but now that person is gone. You can and should still deal with those hurts, but in more sensitive ways, and hopefully when the addict is capable of handling the conversation.
If they’re not ready and you need a break, tell them.
For example, “We’ve been close for a long time, and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge. I care a lot and I support your recovery, but I need some time with this.”
The Bottom Line
As your family member, friend, or loved one moves forward in their recovery process, it’s all new for both of you. Be patient, with them, and with yourself. Remember what kinds of actions to look for in your loved one; if they don’t seem to be exhibiting recovery behavior, talk to them and their healthcare provider about it. Watch for signs of relapse along the way.
Remember the difference between things you can and cannot do to support them in recovery. Keeping an open, honest dialogue and creating and clean and sober safety zone goes a long way toward supporting someone in recovery. And although you can’t do the work of recovery for them, you absolutely can help them get that work done, getting them to appointments and encouraging them not to give up.
Finally, remember that words have power. There are a few things that you should avoid saying to someone in recovery, and some better ways to get your true meaning across. If you can stick to these guidelines, you are well on your way to helping your loved one in recovery.