How to Support a Loved One in Addiction Recovery

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By Ivy Voynovich M.S. LICDC, Executive Director, Hamilton Treatment Services in Ohio

The latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2020 NSDUH) showed that in 2020, almost 28 million people over the age of 18 in the U.S. had an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Of those 28 million, around seven percent received treatment for their AUD. That’s just under two million people. The same data shows that in the same year, around 17 million people age 18 + had a substance use disorder (SUD). Of those 17 million, about 14 percent received treatment for their SUD – that’s about 2.3 million people.

To clarify, AUD refers to what most people call alcohol addiction, while SUD refers to what most people call drug addiction.

When we add up those numbers, we learn there’s a significant statistical likelihood that right now, there are upwards of three million people in recovery in the U.S. There are probably more, if we consider the chance that there are quite a few people out there who decided to stop using alcohol or drugs on their own, which means they never sought professional help, never became a statistic, and therefore, don’t show up in nationwide studies about the prevalence of AUD or SUD or reports about rates of treatment for AUD or SUD.

All that goes to say that with around four million people out there in recovery, there’s a good chance you know one of them. For the purposes of this article, we’ll expand the common definition of “loved one.” In this situation, loved ones can be friends, family members, or co-workers. However you know them, you should know this: if you know they’re in recovery, you’re in a unique position. It’s a position of trust. They shared with you the very personal information that they’re in recovery. It’s also a position of responsibility, in that you have the power to be a positive force in their life and support them on their recovery journey.

There’s one more thing: when someone tells you they’re in recovery, it’s not your place to share that information with anyone else. That’s their information. Unless they tell you otherwise, it’s important for you to keep what you know confidential.

The Importance of Social Support

Evidence shows that when a person in recovery from AUD adds just one non-drinking friend to their social support network, their chances of maintaining sobriety increase by over 25 percent. It’s reasonable to assume a similar effect on people in recovery from SUD: adding friends who do not use drugs to their social support network will likely increase their chances of abstaining from drug use and staying in recovery.

That’s why we’re writing this article: to let you know that if you do, indeed, have a friend or loved one in recovery, and they trust you enough to tell you about it, you can help. That’s not conjecture. It’s documented fact supported by solid evidence published in peer-reviewed journal articles. What the researchers don’t say in their publications, though, is how you can support your friends and loved ones in recovery.

That’s our second reason for writing this article: to offer you practical suggestions for supporting a loved one in recovery.

Are you ready?

Here they are.

Five Tips for Supporting a Friend, Family Member, or Co-Worker in Recovery

1. Call Them

The human voice has the power to heal. We don’t have data for that assertion, though it probably exists. Think about it: one of the first things we hear as humans is the human voice. We do have facts on that: evidence shows that in the third trimester of pregnancy, babies in utero can hear, respond to, and recognize their mother’s voice. That means that one of the first sources of comfort we receive, as humans, is the sound of the human voice. We’re not saying we want you to mother your friend or loved one in recovery. What we’re saying is that rather than texting, emailing, IM’ing, or sending your friend a gif on Facebook or Instagram give them a call, and let the natural power of your voice work its magic on the person you want to help.

2. Include Them

There’s a caveat here: if they’re early in their recovery journey, include them in activities that don’t include alcohol or drugs. Day trips to the beach, hikes at a state park, events that involve kids, and other simple wholesome activities that help them have fun, enjoy companionship, and get out of the house are perfect. Early in recovery, many people have trouble finding ways to fill the time that don’t include alcohol or drugs. You can help them by offering them safe, sober-friendly activities they don’t have to think about or plan: all they have to do is say “Yes.”

3. Respond to Them

With the advent of texting, IMs, and DMs, many people have simply stopped answering their phones. We get it. Why take the time to talk when you can make or confirm plans with simple chat shorthand? One reason why, in the case of a friend in recovery, is item #1 on this list: the healing power of the human voice. Another reason is that if a friend or loved one in recovery calls you, it probably means they need your support. They may not come right out and say, “I’m calling you because I’m having a rough day,” because they might not even realize that, themselves. But the chances are they’re calling because they need to hear a sympathetic voice and feel heard by a supportive friend – even if they never mention recovery during the conversation.

4. Be Proactive

This is related to #2 above: include them. When people go through hard times, friends often say things like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” or “Reach out if you need me, I’m here,” or “Just say the word and I’ll be there.” All those are great: don’t stop saying those things. However, we recommend trying a more specific approach. For instance, try things like “I’m in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by to say hi,” or “We’re on our way to the park and would love to meet you there,” or “I remember you needed help fixing that [insert household maintenance task]. I’d love to come over today to get it done.” This approach takes makes it easy for them to say yes, and reduces any shame they might have about reaching out to ask for help.

5. Listen to Them

If you spend time with a friend in recovery, you may learn that there are times when they start talking – and keep talking. That’s a good thing. People in recovery need to talk. If they talk to you, it probably means they haven’t had the chance to talk to recovery peers or their AA sponsor (sponsors in Alcoholics Anonymous act as sounding boards and mentors, among other things), and they need the time and space to get things off their chest. Here’s what you do when they start talking: you listen patiently, and wait for them to ask you a question before you start talking. If they ask for advice, give them your honest take. If they don’t, then simply let them talk, because that’s what they need in that moment.

The underlying theme here is that one of the most important things you can do for a friend or loved on in recovery is to be there for them. We assume you’re not a therapist or an addiction counselor, so we assume that most of the time, when your friend in recovery reaches out, what they’re looking for is loving, caring, support, as opposed to professional advice from a trained professional. That’s why, at it’s root, your job is simple: be present in their life in the way they ask you to be.

If They Do Ask for Advice

We’d be remiss if we didn’t include a word about treatment – because treatment works. If you have a friend in recovery who’s going it alone, meaning they quit drinking or doing drugs without professional support and they haven’t decided to try AA or NA meetings (Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous), then that’s a slightly different situation than having a friend who’s received treatment and is now on a specific recovery program.

For those friends, it’s a good idea to bring up the idea of seeking community or professional support – especially if they tell you they’re having a hard time staying sober and they don’t know what to do. Community support means AA or NA meetings, and professional support means receiving specialized treatment at an addiction treatment facility. AA and NA meeting are easy to find: you can help your friend by going to the AA website or the NA website and finding a meeting that fits their schedule. Professional support is not as simple as finding a meeting and showing up, but not by much: you can get online and find treatment centers in your area and share what you learn with your friend.

Again, we recommend waiting until they ask, or admit they’re having a hard time staying sober: that probably means the door is open – and the sooner they walk through that door and seek treatment, the more likely they are to achieve and sustain sobriety and recovery.

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.