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Five Ways to Help a Friend in Recovery

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As the stigma around alcohol and substance use disorders slowly begins to fade in our society, more and more people living with these disorders feel confident about seeking treatment. In the past, shame and fear – reinforced from all sides – prevented many people from coming out of the shadows and asking for help.

However, with mainstream acceptance of the disease model of addiction – which likens the disordered use of substances to chronic illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes – the treatment paradigm has changed. We no longer see addiction as a moral failing or a character weakness, but as a chronic disease that responds positively to a treatment model similar to the model used to treat other chronic diseases: an integrated approach that includes lifestyle changes, behavioral interventions, medication, and social support.

With each year that passes, it becomes more apparent that the social support component of the integrated treatment model is crucial. People with diabetes and hypertension see improved outcomes when the people in their immediate social circle – including family, coworkers, and peers – understand what they’re going through and support them in their efforts to get healthy. Cancer patients benefit from the support of loved ones as they experience the ups and downs of treatment, remission, and relapse.

The same is true for people living with alcohol and substance use disorders: treatment outcomes improve when family, friends, coworkers, and peers understand what they’re going through and can offer support.

That’s where you come in.

Whether you know it or not, it’s likely someone in your circle of relationships lives with an alcohol or substance use disorder – and, if they choose to tell you what they’re going through, there are some specific things you can do to help.

Empathy, Acceptance, and Kindness

Those are words we all need to remember, because none of us truly know what other people are going through, what challenges they’re facing, or what obstacles they’ve overcome – unless they tell us. We may think we know – through observation, rumor, or speculation – but the fact is many of us walk through life keeping big, important things close to the vest.

And in many cases, people living with alcohol and/or substance use disorders become experts at keeping things close to the vest. In fact, it’s not uncommon for someone to keep problem drinking or drug use a secret for years. Some may go decades – or even a lifetime – without opening up to anyone.

That’s why it’s important for you to understand how you can help a friend if they tell you they’re in recovery from and/or in treatment for an alcohol or substance use disorder. How you react and the actions you take can have a significant, positive impact in their lives.

In other words, it helps if you know how to help – and here are five ways you can.

Five Ways to Help a Friend in Recovery

  1. Honor the privilege. If a friend tells you they’re in recovery, understand that out of all the people in the world with whom they could have shared this very personal information, they chose you. That’s a big deal. You may be the only person outside their family who knows. If they’re in a treatment program, you may be the only one who knows, period, outside of their clinicians and counselors. Therefore, honoring the privilege has two parts: part one is recognizing the fact they trust you enough to confide in you, and part two is keeping the information private, unless they specify otherwise.
  2. Say yes. When a friend in recovery reaches out, answer the phone. Reply to that text or instant message. If they ask you to get together, whether it’s for lunch, to get a coffee, to accompany them to an event, or just to talk, say yes whenever you can. Say yes to talking, yes to lunch, yes to the movie, yes to whatever it is. Companionship is crucial for people in recovery, and for some, simply reaching out to a friend for a chat or to make simple social plans represents an important step in the right direction: you can help by being there for them when they do.
  3. Invite them to events. There are some details here that will be specific to the friend and the relationship you have with them. For instance, some people in recovery from an alcohol use disorder don’t want to be anywhere near alcohol: even at something as innocuous as a baseball game, vendors hawking beer in the stands might be a trigger. Instead, ask them to a movie. Ask them to go watch your kid play soccer. Invite them to a play, an arts festival, or a Saturday morning farmer’s market in your town. And keep this in mind: even if they demure once or twice, keep asking. Sometimes receiving the invitation can be as important to them as actually going.
  4. Listen, listen, listen. We really do have a listening problem in our culture: we tend to listen with an agenda. Oftentimes, even when those closest to us are talking, we’re not really listening. We’re thinking of clever ways to respond, add to, or refute what the other person is saying. When a person in recovery calls you on the phone, or begins opening up to you in person, your only job is to listen. If they share good news, then offer congratulations and encouragement. If they’re talking through a problem, you don’t have to offer advice or try to figure out how to fix anything, unless they ask you to. If they don’t ask for input on the problem specifically, here’s a good reply to keep the conversation going: “I’m sorry to hear that. That sounds tough. You want to meet for [lunch, dinner, coffee…] today and catch up?”
  5. Support without judgment. This is critical: your support of the individual is separate from your opinion of their choices and behavior. When a friend is in recovery, this can play out in a number of different ways. Your friend might choose a therapeutic route you disagree with: support them anyway. Your friend might relapse: support them anyway. Don’t judge them for relapsing any more than you’d judge a friend whose diabetes, hypertension, or cancer comes out of remission. Your script here is simple, and should be a variation of this basic question: How can I help?

Those five suggestions should give you an idea of how to go about being a friend to someone in recovery. It’s a bit of a paradox: simultaneously tricky and not tricky at all. The tricky part is recognizing how important you are to that person while not making your interactions about you. The simple part is being yourself. They opened up to you in the first place because of something you have to offer or because they find comfort in your words or presence. That means when they call, what they want is you: nothing more, nothing less.

Open, Honest, and Direct

It’s worth reiterating that empathy, acceptance, and kindness are prerequisites, here: save the hard-nosed, tough love for someone else. Believe me: if someone is in treatment, they get the unvarnished facts from their therapists or counselors. You don’t have to be that person. If they attend peer support meetings like AA or NA, they’ll get their share of straight talk. Believe me again: the old-timers in AA and NA meetings don’t hold back.

Your job is to be a friend.

Their treatment program has the therapy part covered, and the members of their peer support groups have the tough love covered. But you’re neither therapist nor recovery mentor. You’re a friend.

Your challenge: be open, honest, and direct while being kind and compassionate.

That’s what they need.

You can do that.

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