Supporting loved ones through addiction and recovery

To some, it may sound counterintuitive, but addiction is a disease. Similar to cancer or diabetes, addiction targets brain and body functions while having lasting impacts on many areas of a person’s life. Being witness to the suffering of a close friend or family member is heartbreaking to say the least; when it comes to addiction, it can be difficult to know how to provide care and support to those afflicted. Supporting a loved one through addiction and recovery is the strong foundation the addict will need in order to succeed in the hard journey to come.

Showing compassion and support to those who are seemingly hurting themselves with drug and/or alcohol use is challenging, but that is exactly what is needed to foster recovery. Individuals engaged in patterns of substance abuse frequently get trapped in cycles of shame and guilt and use substances to numb these feelings along with stress, trauma, mental illness and more. Our reaction to our loved one’s substance abuse can unfortunately perpetuate these feeling when our concern comes out as anger and frustration. Below are some strategies you can use to both protect yourself and to support someone living with a substance use disorder.

  1. Set boundaries – when we care for another it can be difficult to say no or to stand our ground. You are well within your right to draw firm boundaries with a loved one living with a substance use disorder. Be sure to communicate your boundaries clearly and calmly, ideally, before it becomes an issue. Protecting your own wellbeing will better equip you to support another.
  2. Communicate – communicating your feeling can be challenging under the best of circumstances; when in close proximity to someone living with a substance use issue can add additional stress. Strive for open, honest and kind dialogue. Express what supports you are able to provide and ask as many questions as you need to. Aim to understand what role your loved one wants to you to play in their recovery.
  3. Use “I” statements – when communicating concerns try presenting them as “I” statements: “I feel _______ when you _______ because _______ I need _______”. “I” statements allow us to assert our thoughts and concerns openly and honestly without placing blame on an individual which can promote feelings of shame.
  4. Offer support and encouragement (if you can) – once you have drawn and communicated your boundaries, offering support for one’s recovery can have lasting impacts. You can start small by offer to do research on treatment options, drive a loved one to appointments or 12 step meetings or just check in from time to time. You can also identify yourself as someone they can turn to when times are hard and provide emotional support. You can encourage your loved one to seek treatment but remember, treatment is most successful with the individual is internally motivated to make changes in their life.

Impacts of addiction span wide and include strain on relationships, particularly those with close family members. Therefore we encourage all family members seek support for themselves while loved ones are working towards sobriety in their own parallel recovery. This can take many forms including: counseling, support groups, self-care, self-reflection, and reconnecting to community. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue or burnout, it is essential that you seek … symptoms include physical and emotional exhaustion, irritability, difficulty sleeping.

Tension runs high in families affected by addiction, it is more than likely that there are unresolved issues that need to be addressed with friend or family members who live with substance use disorders. Early recovery is fragile and those new to sobriety should focus each day on not drinking or using. Further along in a loved one’s recovery, once stability has been achieved, you may want to explore family counseling.