It may surprise you to learn that approximately one in ten Americans have recovered from a substance use disorder. Chances are, you know somebody who’s living in recovery. Maybe they’re a friend, neighbor, or family member.
It can be hard to know how to best support these members of our communities, since stigma and silence so often surround addiction and recovery.
As a certified peer recovery specialist and a person in long-term recovery, I’m familiar with this struggle from several different perspectives. So when it comes to supporting your loved ones after a substance use disorder, here are a few key dos and don’ts to keep in mind.
Use non-judgmental words. First, and most importantly, don’t use words that label. Avoid calling people in recovery “addicts,” or even “recovering addicts.” Always put the person first in your language. Try referring to your loved one as a “person recovering from a substance use disorder,” or “person in recovery.”
Know that it’s okay to express concern and care. Don't be afraid to bring it up, or feel awkward about discussing your loved one’s feelings and experiences. In fact, your loved one will feel more comfortable if you are capable of expressing yourself clearly.
Communicate directly—but in a kind and supportive way. You don’t have to dance around the issue, but be sure that you’re framing your thoughts in a loving way. For example, if you’re concerned about a friend in recovery, don’t ask accusatory questions that will put the person on the defense, like “are you using again?” Instead, you can note, “I noticed you don’t seem as happy the past few days. Did something change?”
Offer to help where you can, but resist the urge to “babysit.” Instead of trying to take over and do the work for them, ask if you can help your loved one in specific, supportive ways. For example, if they need to get themselves to upcoming appointments, offer to help them look up the bus schedule, rather than insisting on driving them yourself. If your loved one is trying to find a new behavioral health provider, offer to be there when they start making phone calls or to help them prepare a list of questions to ask—instead of offering to do all the work for them.
Start a conversation—and be open to continuing it. Let your loved one know that it’s safe for them to talk to you about their recovery experience. Let them know they can be honest and open with you, without fear of judgment. They may be nervous to talk to you at first, so to get the conversation going, try asking open-ended questions (“What was the best part of your day?”) instead of dead-end questions with a yes or no answer.
Be confrontational or interrogative. You can ask simple and direct questions—just refrain from using sarcasm or an accusatory tone.
Nag. It’s important to trust your loved one. When we begin to give them trust, they will eventually know they are trusted and supported, and will be more responsible, respectful, and reliable.
Treat them like children. Give your loved one the respect you’d want. Support them and hold them to accountable to any set expectations, just as you would to any other young adult or adult.
Blur your own boundaries. Boundaries are important for everyone. We can still have boundaries to keep ourselves in wellness and continue to show our loved one we have their best interest in mind.
Try to rescue them from their own life. Just because your loved one is in recovery, that doesn’t mean you need to save them from their own bad planning or mistakes. Let them own their own life and responsibilities. Let them be independent. Let them thrive in recovery on their own terms.
Anne Lopez is the Director of Shatterproof's Family Program. She is also a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist and a woman in long-term recovery.