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How To Support Someone In Recovery: 6 Big Ways To Help

When a friend, family, spouse, or loved one finally takes the first steps towards living a life in sobriety, it’s only natural that you want to learn how to support someone in recovery.

But without a lived experience of addiction to draw from yourself, it’s often unclear how or what you can do to aid them in the recovery process. You’ve already taken a vital first step: seeking out more information is the best way to begin. 

Learning Your Role in the Process

One of the first things to learn in helping your loved ones is how you fit into their recovery process – and what your true scope of support can be.

All too often, people mistake what their loved ones may need in achieving recovery with what they can actually provide. This confusion can often lead to you feeling out of your depth or providing information that isn’t necessarily helpful.

You are not your loved one’s therapist, sponsor, or doctor.

Your goal in supporting your loved one shouldn’t be in providing strategies to overcome cravings, or to help them reframe their addictive thought patterns, or to uncover the root cause of their addiction.

While these are all valuable goals for anyone in recovery, they’re better left to treatment professionals who have a wealth of experience and more objective perspectives.

But more importantly, this typically isn’t what your loved one needs or wants from you.

You are their friend, their husband, their wife, their partner, or their family. And as important as getting evidence-based treatment is for addiction, you can play an even greater role in their recovery. You can provide love and support that isn’t contingent on a professional relationship and can offer the compassion and companionship that is critical to a life well lived in sobriety.

You don’t need to shoulder the burden of your loved one’s recovery. Working towards sobriety is their goal, their process, and their prerogative. Learning how to support someone in recovery isn’t about inserting yourself into that journey and trying to force their hand, but simply being the partner and advocate that has their back. 

A woman hugs her friend tightly as she struggles to grapple with early recovery from alcohol addiction
how to support someone in recovery

What You Can Do To Support Someone in Recovery

Of course, there are several things that you can do to help your loved one in achieving their goals. When they’ve taken the steps towards sobriety for the very first time, every little piece of support can add up – and even small steps towards supporting your loved one can often make a dramatic difference in their ability to stay sober.

Here are some of the best steps you can take to support someone in recovery.

1. Learn about Addiction 

Having at least a basic understanding of the workings of substance use disorders can not only help build compassion for your loved one’s struggles, but also inform you about what to expect throughout the recovery process.

Untangling the threads of addiction is literally the lifetime work of countless scholars and academics, but a few key insights can help you start your own learning process:

Addiction is not a choice.

Scientists have discovered that people who use addictive substances experience lasting brain changes that alter the way people behave, think, and feel on a daily basis.

This includes experiencing invasive drug cravings, feeling less reward from pleasurable activities, and discounting future rewards in favor of instant gratification. These changes will recover – but it often takes months or years of recovery for an addicted brain to return to normal.

Co-occurring disorders are common.

Estimates from the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggest that 37.9% of people living with a substance use disorder have a co-occurring mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress. The symptoms of these disorders are often masked by drugs or alcohol – but can appear when people get sober for the first time.

Withdrawal symptoms are real.

Drugs such as alcohol or opioids can cause dramatic physical withdrawal symptoms that are often dangerous if left untreated. But psychological withdrawal can happen as well – leading to people feeling fatigued, depressed, unmotivated, anxious, or insecure.

Recovery is possible.

Addiction can often leave both the people living with a substance use disorder and their friends and family feeling hopeless about ever achieving sobriety, but the fact is that most people will recover – provided they seek out treatment, get the help they need, and commit to working towards sobriety.   

If you’re ready to dive deeper into understanding alcohol, sobriety, and how to get sober and stay sober – we’ve cultivated a number of different resources talking about specific challenges that people face and how to work through them.

2. Provide Encouragement

As somebody who’s close to a person living with a substance use disorder, you’re in the ideal position to provide encouragement and support. This matters even more because of your relationship prior to them taking their first steps towards recovery.

Celebrate your loved one for achieving recovery milestones. Recognize them for the work they’re putting into recovery. If you’re grateful for what they’re doing and the effort they’ve put in, share that gratitude.

You may know them better than anyone else – and a few words of encouragement can go a long way towards helping them keep the motivation to stay the course.

3. Learn to be an Active Listener

Breaking free from addiction is hard. For most people starting the journey towards sobriety, it’s an all-encompassing process.

It’s not just a matter of putting down the bottle, but learning new ways to interact, building social support networks that encourage sobriety, and approaching life’s challenges in new ways. 

These changes can be overwhelming, dramatic, and emotionally draining.

Being able to listen to your loved one’s challenges with compassion and empathy can help them through these difficult times. But active listening is a skill – one that many people don’t have by default.

There are a few key pointers that can help you in developing this skill, and helping you become a better supporter of your loved ones:

  • Try to listen without automatically providing solutions to their problems.
  • Reflect on what your loved one is feeling.
  • Dive deeper into their issues with them – for example, by asking “what do you mean when you say ….”
  • Show you’re listening, that you care, and that you’re willing to talk through their challenges with them.

Active listening may seem like a small change, but what it does is show that you’re truly invested in their recovery, that you’re on their side as an advocate, and that you’re willing to step into the hard times with them if it can help them to feel better.

It also affords your loved one the opportunity to share what they need from you and puts you in a position to be able to truly hear their needs.

A man puts his arm around his friend as they look at the cityscape
how to support a friend in sobriety

4. Remove the Alcohol

If you haven’t done so already, getting any alcohol out of the house can make it so much easier for your loved one to resist cravings and temptation, especially if most of their drinking was at home.

Facing your drug of choice every day is hard.

Even if your loved one feels like it isn’t a problem today, that doesn’t mean it won’t be a problem tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that.

In addiction recovery, people can experience sudden, overwhelming impulses to drink. Addiction treatment teaches people how to manage these cravings and strategies to overcome them, but each craving comes with the possibility that your willpower can slip for even just a moment.

As such, leading researchers investigating relapse prevention encourage people to avoid situations and environments where drugs or alcohol are easily available, particularly in early recovery when the risk of relapse is high.

The world is already paved with triggers. We live in a culture that celebrates alcohol use, where beer commercials are played during every sporting event, and where alcoholic beverages take up several aisles in every grocery store.

Home can often be the only respite.

6. Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself 

There’s a common cliché that the loved ones of people with substance use disorders often repeat: “Place the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting others.” Taking the time for your own mental health is critical to helping your loved one, and burning yourself out caring for others can only lead to further harm.

Addiction doesn’t just affect the people who struggle with their drinking. It affects families, friends, workplaces, and communities. In all likelihood, you’ve already placed yourself under undue strain attempting to help your loved one – and neglected your own needs for too long.

Find what works for you to keep your mental health in shape. It could be setting aside time each week for self-care, prioritizing spending time with your friends or family, or seeking out support groups for loved ones of people living with addiction – such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon.

Making Your Own Path to Recovery

When a loved one finally reaches out for help, it’s often an opportunity for you to do the same. Sometimes the best way to help your loved one is by setting an example of striving towards your own recovery, joining them on the path to self-improvement, and making the journey together.

Loving someone with an addiction can be hard, and there’s no guarantee that their foray into sobriety will end in long-term success. But you can take this time to build upon the core elements of a strong relationship, including working on yourself. 

You don’t need to save your loved one who’s struggling with addiction – only they can make that change. But by being there with them, giving them a stable source of love and companionship, and making a few simple changes, you can be a valuable supporter of their journey.

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