This September marks the 25th anniversary of National Recovery Month. Established in 1989, the observance was created to spread the positive message that prevention works, treatment is effective, and people can and do recover. While the month is nearing its end, the journey toward lasting sobriety is just beginning for many. With 23 million Americans in recovery, chances are high that just about every one of us has friends or loved ones who fit the description. Whether they have been sober for days, months, or years, it’s important to remember that they still are living with a chronic disease that requires monitoring, treatment—and support. Here are concrete ways you can help provide that, especially during the crucial period of early recovery.
Learn as much as you can about recovery from substance use disorders.
Understanding the emotional, physical, and behavioral components of the healing process is essential to providing a supportive environment. For example, when a loved one stops putting alcohol or drugs into his body, it’s tempting to assume that the hard part is over. This is especially true when that person starts to “look well.” But a brain affected by substance use needs time to heal, just as a broken leg would, and the amount of time may be longer than you would have thought: Research tells us that the process can take up to two years. Developing a deeper understanding of what a loved one is going through will allow you to recognize the challenges and celebrate the steps that are a part of the recovery process.
Encourage and support participation in treatment.
There is no quick fix for someone struggling with a substance use disorder. Your loved one will likely need to be in treatment of varying levels of intensity for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to stop a course of treatment once symptoms improve, but before the body has recovered. Someone with strep throat might stop short of taking the full course of antibiotics when the pain stops and the fever disappears, then wind up back in bed thinking the medicine didn’t work. So, too, might someone struggling with drug or alcohol abuse be inclined to stop participating in out-patient care when feeling better. But if you are in contact and engaged with your loved one’s treatment team, you can help her stay the course of treatment, which results in better treatment outcomes. Understand that a relapse or use episode is not an unusual event for people with substance use disorders. While it can be disheartening, your being involved and connected with treatment professionals means earlier detection and intervention, which can mean the difference between one-time use and months or years of continued use.
Create and support a safe and sober environment in which your loved one can recover.
Having all substances and related items out of a loved one’s immediate environment removes unnecessary obstacles to recovery. Your loved one may say this is not necessary, that he is “strong” enough to be around these things. That may be true, but it also may make the already difficult process more challenging. It’s like being on a diet but having cookies in the cupboard: You might never eat one, but a lot of energy goes into thinking about how those cookies are there for the taking. This is energy that can create cravings and could be better spent on the positive choices immediately available.
This concept also applies to occasions that involve alcohol or other substances. Your loved one’s attendance at a family wedding may be important, but not as important as his recovery. A recovering brain may not be ready to be immersed in a situation that could trigger cravings and unnecessary stress.You may wonder when it is time for your loved one to adapt to difficult situations rather than avoid them. In my experience, the first year is when it is prudent for people not to test their strength, but rather to make smart, safe choices. After that, events like that family wedding may still be challenging, but you can help make them less so. Plan ahead by making sure that the person has sober supports there (like a sober friend to attend with),anticipating the parts of the experience that might be particularly difficult, and identifying specific ways to navigate them. It’s also important to have an escape plan if the situation becomes too uncomfortable.
Understand and accept that your loved one may begin a different life course.
Addiction is a chronic disease that will require life changes and may put your loved one on a course that you never anticipated. This may mean postponing or deciding against college, quitting a job that is too stressful, and developing new and different friendships. You may not understand or agree with these decisions or changes. You may feel uncomfortable with the new relationships formed in support groups. Letting go of what was and what you thought was going to be and supporting a new lifestyle is often frightening and frustrating. But stable recovery will allow your loved one to experience and achieve wonderful things that neither you nor your loved one ever imagined.
Take care of yourself.
Think about the safety instructions you hear on an airplane flight: If the oxygen mask drops, place it on yourself first before assisting someone else. This is often counterintuitive, but we cannot help others if we are not well ourselves. Living with someone who is abusing drugs or alcohol is exhausting and traumatic. Living with someone in early recovery can be equally as taxing in a different way. In attending to a loved one with a substance use disorder, family members often put their own feelings and needs aside. Attending support groups, going to individual or family counseling, and putting your own self-care plan into action are steps that can result in a healthier, happier environment for all.
Clinical Director, Phoenix House Mid-Atlantic
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