As a gratefully recovering addict myself, I can’t state enough the importance of having a strong support system in your life in recovery.
When transitioning from active addiction to recovery, regardless of how you get there, you essentially have to learn how to live all over again without the one coping mechanism you’ve relied on for months or even years. Not that drug use is a great coping mechanism or anything, because it absolutely isn’t--it just happens to often be the only one we know how to use while in active addiction.
I’m not going to act like recovery is all wonderful eye-opening realizations and meditation retreats and new friends. Parts of it are like that, sure, but addiction recovery is hard. It involves taking a long, hard look at yourself and how you’ve hurt yourself and the people you love. It’s making amends with people who might not want to even speak to you at first. It’s addressing unpaid debts and estranged loved ones and slowly repairing damage you’ve caused.
One thing recovery doesn’t have to be, though, is lonely. If you have a recovering addict in your life, here are five ways to support them regardless of where they’re at in their journey, whether they quit using three days ago or already have 10 years of sobriety under their belt.
1. Understand that addiction is a disease.
It can be frustrating to watch someone you love change so drastically while struggling with active addiction, but it is important for you to understand they weren’t completely in control while under the influence of addictive drugs.
Chronic drug use causes a serious shift in perception and the very morals and belief system a person typically lives by, but by the time this change begins, physical drug dependence has already occurred. This causes addicts to seek more drugs to ease the physical and psychological withdrawal despite knowing they aren’t acting like they used to and even if they’re hurting themselves and the people around them.
Most addicts go into recovery knowing it’s going to take time and hard work for their loved ones to trust them again, but it’s also important for those loved ones to understand the nature of addiction as an illness and not a moral failing.
People choose to initially use drugs for many different reasons. For most addicts, the primary reason usually has something to do with soothing some kind of physical or emotional pain. Trauma and drug addiction are very strongly linked; addict populations show consistently high levels of PTSD.
2. When they want to talk, listen without judgement.
Whether you have a decade or a month in recovery, you’re going to have bad days. One of the most helpful resources I’ve found in recovery is having people close who will listen to however I’m feeling and just...be there.
Even if you aren’t sure what to say in response to an addict you love venting, just be there. Be present when they’re angry or resentful or self-loathing or just plain miserable. Maybe just the day before they were fine, and today they’ve had three panic attacks and can’t stop crying about something they did while they were in active addiction five years ago.
Personally, when I’m venting to loved ones in my own little support system, I don’t mind if they don’t say anything at all, and they know that, too. Just knowing someone is there to listen can make all the difference between a horrible day alone and a slightly less horrible day where someone listened and didn’t judge or criticize me.
3. Do a bit of research.
You don’t need to be an expert on mental illness or addiction recovery to support a recovering addict in your life; that’s what mental health professionals are for. Just spend some time reading up on and understanding how addiction affects the brain, for example.
Learn about things like tolerance and withdrawal and how addiction develops; any extra bit of knowledge will give you more perspective on how and why your loved one began using and how you can better understand what they’re experiencing in recovery.
4. Encourage and offer to join them in healthy habits.
Finding new coping mechanisms and healthy ways to express yourself while in recovery is essential to long-term success. It’s intimidating to try new things alone, though.
Offer to try new things with your loved one in recovery like exercise and other constructive hobbies to help them build healthier habits. If they’ve expressed interest in a certain hobby, whether it’s biking or knitting or just going for a run every day, suggest that you join them to make the new activity a little less scary for them.
One thing addicts have a lot of in recovery is time, and having all that time to think about withdrawals and cravings and embarrassing events from your past can easily consume a person if they don’t have healthy outlets for their frustration and anxiety.
5. Be patient.
Potentially the most important thing when it comes to being there for a recovering addict is to understand that recovery takes a long time. There’s no set amount of time or precise number of actions it takes for someone to go from active addiction to a healthy, stable lifestyle, because health and stability look different for everyone. Plus, everyone’s circumstances and how they got to where they are are different.
Some addicts relapse multiple times on the way to recovery; some don’t. Some addicts benefit from rehab or NA meetings; some don’t. Some addicts are able to get through the initial withdrawal stage with little difficulty; some take weeks or months to feel even somewhat normal again.
Just be patient and understand that everyone in recovery is going to have a different story and a different idea of what a stable, happy lifestyle is for them.