How Not to Treat Someone Recovering from Addiction

How Not to Treat Someone Recovering from Addiction

If someone you love is recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction, it’s natural to feel worried, helpless, confused and even angry. But no matter what emotions you’re feeling, your love and support are essential to their recovery.

Isolation and loneliness are some of the most crippling effects of addiction. As long as someone feels alone, the substance can have power over them. Which is why the support of close family and friends could be the difference between relapse and lasting recovery.

Support comes in two forms: when we pay attention and when we actively help. Enabling is when our actions, whether intentionally or not, shield our loved ones from any negative consequences of their addiction. As counterintuitive as it may seem, consequences can motivate lasting behavior change.

Even our best intentions to help can trigger negative emotions, potentially pushing loved ones in recovery towards relapse. Like any caring friend or family member, we know you want to help – not hurt – their chances of recovery.

So here are our top five tips for what not to do to someone in recovery, plus what you can do instead.

1) Don’t Ask Intrusive Questions About Their Addiction

Casually asking questions like, “How do you know you’re an addict?” or, “What was your rock bottom?” could come across as insensitive. And to a certain extent, it may be disrespectful of the work your loved one has invested in their recovery. Bringing up the past while someone is actively working to rebuild their future – one that is free from substance abuse – isn’t helpful.

Comments like, “You don’t look like an addict,” can also be harmful because they’re not supportive or encouraging. They only add to the negative stereotypes about what a person struggling with substance abuse or addiction is supposed to look like according to society.

Shame and guilt are also strong negative feelings that can often trigger substance abuse. Try not to make passing comments that make your loved one in recovery feel bad, whether intentionally or unintentionally, for their past choices or behaviors.

Do this instead: Listen to them

One of the best ways to show your support is to simply listen. Anything you could think of saying, they’ve probably already heard multiple times from many different people.

As philosopher Paul Tillich once said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” If your words ever feel like they’re falling flat, just remember that a listening ear goes a long way in supporting someone’s recovery journey.

2) Don’t Expect an Overnight Recovery

Just like addictions don’t develop in a day, recovery won’t happen overnight. Even if your loved one goes through a 30-day inpatient rehab program, you shouldn’t expect them to come out of it fully rehabilitated.

Recovery is a journey. And while living a fully recovered life is possible, every person’s path follows its own timeline. Placing unrealistic expectations or “deadlines” on the recovering person only adds unnecessary pressure to an already difficult situation.

Do this instead: Realign your expectations and be patient.

Recovery takes time, discipline and commitment. There might even be some bumps in the road, but that’s okay. It doesn’t mean they’re a bad person or that they don’t want to recover; it simply means they have flaws like all of us.

The best way to set realistic expectations is to have an honest, open conversation. Ask your family member or friend what their recovery goals are and how you can best support them to reach those goals. Be open to playing a different role in their life than what you originally saw yourself doing. And remember: ultimately this journey is theirs to go through. The best you can do is be there for them.

3) Don’t Assume You Know Everything About Addiction

Addiction and recovery aren’t as one-dimensional as they appear. Unless you’ve had firsthand experience with it, there’s probably a lot that you don’t know and may not be able to relate to.

For example, just because one form of treatment may have worked for someone else you know or read about, doesn’t mean it will work for your loved one. Treatment for drug and alcohol addiction isn’t universal. What works for one person may not work for another and vice versa.

Sometimes the advice we want to give will do more harm than good. At best we are just repeating stuff they’ve either already heard or already know about firsthand. At worst we sound cold and uncaring.

Do this instead: Educate yourself about addiction.

Wrong information and harmful stereotypes about addiction are everywhere. Which is why it is helpful for you to research and learn about what addiction is, who is at risk for addiction and how it affects different people.

It’s also important for you to know what types of treatment are available. Specifically, learn about the recovery program your loved one is going through. Have a conversation with them and ask how you can support them during their recovery instead of assuming you know what’s best.

4) Don’t Enable Them or Encourage Negative Behavior

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between helping someone and enabling them. Actions done out of love and a desire to help, like giving your loved ones money and paying their bills, can be enabling if it prevents them from recovering.

Another example of enabling would be offering alcohol to someone recovering from drug addiction. Just because they weren’t addicted to alcohol doesn’t mean it isn’t something they should avoid.

People in recovery often have to make many difficult and sometimes permanent lifestyle changes. It’s important to respect those changes by not encouraging them to fall into old habits. When you hang out or get together, don’t meet in places that could be triggering. And when in doubt, just ask!

The best way to make sure you’re not enabling is to pay attention to your own actions. Check-in with yourself and honestly decide if the choices you’re making are truly helping them or if you’re unintentionally enabling them to keep up toxic patterns.

Do this instead: Be the friend they need.

Missing out on social gatherings isn’t fun for anyone. So imagine how it must feel to someone going through recovery to have to make the choice between maintaining their friendships or continuing their sobriety.

Take some of the pressure off by going with them into new social settings as a fellow sober friend. Or, even better, create new memories and traditions in new places that don’t carry baggage at all. You can also refrain from reminding them of what they’re “missing out on.”

Don’t be afraid to get creative to show them that you’re invested in this friendship, and in helping their recovery be a success.

5) Don’t Give up on Them

Fighting addiction is hard and scary. Sometimes it feels like a never-ending battle and not just for the person experiencing it, but for everyone involved.

You may not realize how important your support actually is. Even if you get frustrated with your loved one, it’s critical that you don’t imply that you don’t think they can change. If you give up on them, that might just make them give up on themselves as well.

Battling addiction is hard, but recovery is possible. Hang on to this truth whenever it gets hard and just remember that your love and support might make all the difference.

Do this instead: Set boundaries and practice self-care.

Boundaries are important because they help you protect yourself and prevent you from burning out. Boundaries are any lines that you decide cannot be crossed, like not letting your loved one drink or use around you or not lending financial help.

It’s important to be open and honest about your boundaries and to stick to them. If you don’t follow through, your loved one also might not follow through on their commitments.

We know the toll that this role can take on you. Which is why it’s equally important to take care of your own wellbeing. Make time for yourself – whether it’s exercising, spending time outside, or expressing yourself creatively. Doing things you enjoy revives your soul, and will benefit you and your loved one more in the long run than if you let yourself get burned out.

Recovery Doesn’t Have to be Lonely

Sometimes we don’t even realize how much our encouragement and support matter to those we’re closest to. But a strong support system can make recovery all the more successful.

Contact us today to learn more about our non-12-Step addiction treatment center and how we can help your loved one on their journey to an addiction-free life.

Kelley Alexander JD. photo

Kelley Alexander JD.  is the co-director of The Sanctuary at Sedona and has worked over the last decade to develop its innovative Integrative Addiction Recovery Program that has helped hundreds of clients to be recovered from addiction and co-occurring disorders. Through her pioneering work, Kelley and her team at The Sanctuary also work with clients to overcome issues related to codependency, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. A JD and former practicing attorney, Kelley holds a BA in World Religions and has done graduate work in psychology. She is an ordained minister, certified shamanic breathwork facilitator, and a graduate of the Four Winds Healing The Light Body School, the premier energy medicine program founded by Alberto Villoldo. Kelley has also been a student of Dr. Joe Dispenza since 2009. She is a member of the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology and the Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies. She is a frequent lecturer at seminars and conferences throughout the United States.
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