Supporting our loved ones in recovery can be challenging, but it is essential to their healing processes. Here are some actionable ways we can all be better recovery allies.
“Recovery is an act of love,” a friend of mine once said. He was talking about his own recovery from years of alcohol use, and how he returned to tarnished family relationships, ready to start over. Some of his family welcomed him back right away, some took their time to heal old wounds, and others still aren’t able to forgive the harmful behavior he exhibited while he was drinking heavily. There’s no right way to respond, but some ways are healthier than others.
Substance use disorder can hit a family or relationship like a Category 5 hurricane, viciously destructive and unconcerned for what’s in its path. With all of the lying, stealing, infidelity, and disappointments, we can feel like there’s no way to repair the damage that’s been done by a loved one in active addiction. Sometimes a complete break is the only healthy way to move forward. But for many, on the other side of substance use disorder is recovery, with all the possibilities of a new life.
Research shows that around 75 percent of people with a mild, moderate, or severe substance use disorder recover. There’s hope for everyone with problematic substance use. It can take time, effort, and patience, but for most people, there’s hope for mending relationships and creating new beginnings.
What Is Recovery Allyship?
Recovery in its broadest sense means living fully and reaching one’s highest potential within life’s constraints. For many people in recovery, but not all, abstinence is crucial. One woman I know told me that recovery for her means “living her best life.”
Family members and friends partake in recovery, too. Some do it well, embracing the chance to reconnect. Others do the best they can to salvage relationships and muddle along. Either way, the recovery journey of someone we love presents opportunities for us—allies—to do some serious heart work of our own.
I’ve spoken with hundreds of people in recovery, and they’ve generously shared their own stories and the ways family and friends have supported them. One woman in recovery for many years offers advice to allies: “Be curious. Find out more. Do the work you need to do to become openhearted. When we feel judged and we’re trying to grow, are you growing too? Come back to a place of love and empathy.”
What Does Recovery Look Like?
One of the ways we can become more open-hearted is by learning about recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is foundational for substance use disorder treatment in the US. Twelve-step programs like AA have provided help and support to millions of people around the world.
Others follow different paths that are also successful. It may come as a surprise that most people—perhaps as many as 80 percent—move into recovery with no assistance. These folks typically have a less severe problem and figure out their own strategies, like weighing the costs and benefits of using substances, avoiding the people, places, and things that are associated with using drugs or drinking, creating a new social network with people who don’t use, and finding meaningful activities.
Recovery research supports a full range of pathways to recovery. For example, SMART Recovery is based on self-empowerment and is grounded in the science of cognitive-behavioral, non-confrontational motivational enhancement. Not all pathways demand abstinence, and while using any substance can signal a possible return to chaotic use for some people, others are able to drink or use substances in moderation.
Moderation Management is a program of peer-led local groups for people who want to make positive changes in the amount or the way they drink. Reframe is an evidence-based app that uses neuroscience and behavior change tools to help people develop healthier drinking habits. The Phoenix is a physical activity program that offers climbing, hiking, running, strength training, yoga, biking, and other physical activities for people in recovery, with a cost of membership of 48 hours of sobriety. For many, having a faith community is vital.
So, if the person you love isn’t “attending meetings”—which usually means attending 12-step meetings—that doesn't necessarily mean they’re not working on their recovery. They may be doing something else that works for them.
Ways to Be a Recovery Ally
Recovery research shows us that people who are successful in their recovery change their social networks and engage in meaningful activities. This is where friends and family can be so important. Here are some suggestions:
Ask your loved one what recovery means to them. They may not want to use the word “recovery,” but maybe they’ll talk about what they want from life now that they have decided to limit or eliminate substance use. If they’re open to a conversation, ask them how you can support them, and then be ready to follow through.
If your loved one’s recovery story isn’t perfect, don’t brush that under the rug by saying something like, “Well, at least you aren’t using drugs anymore.” Recovery is about living a full life, not just about abstinence. If you acknowledge that they’re having a hard time, they might be able to offer you something specific you can do to help make their situation easier.
If your loved one isn’t open to conversation, find ways to spend time with them that don’t involve talking about their recovery—just try to create positive connections if they’re open to that.
Ask open-ended questions—for example, “Is there anything I can do to help with the transition to your new job?”—and then be ready to act on whatever the answer is.
Strategies for Resilience in Recovery Allyship
Individual resilience can help prevent a minor setback from turning into a full-blown return to substance use. Allies can be resilient, too, by adapting and figuring out together with your loved one how to thrive when so much change is happening.
Talk about stressful events and brainstorm with your loved one about how to improve the ways you deal with them together.
Discuss boundaries and try new ways of communicating to see what will work best.
Make a point of inviting your loved one to gatherings if it’s safe to do so. It might be awkward for everyone the first few times, but it’s an important step in the person’s recovery journey.
Above all, take care of yourself so that you have the energy and heart to be nonjudgmental and supportive when an opportunity to connect arises. Knowing more about addiction and working to support your loved one’s recovery doesn’t mean things will work out the way you want them to.
Your loved one may return to using, or their road to wellness might not include you. If that happens, it might be important to acknowledge that their recovery really wasn’t in your control anyway. Acceptance and forgiveness may come, perhaps with time, faith, or intention, or they may not come at all. No matter what, though, maintaining your own spiritual health is your best path forward.
More information for recovery allies:
- Partnership to End Addiction: https://drugfree.org/
- Support for Family Members: https://drugfree.org/get-support-now/
- Recovery Advocacy Project: https://www.recoveryvoices.com/
- Shatterproof: https://www.shatterproof.org
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- SAMHSA Treatment Locator: https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/
Adapted from the author’s book, Recovery Allies: How to Support Addiction Recovery and Build Recovery-Friendly Communities (North Atlantic Books, 2022).
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