Advice for the Friends of Newly Recovered Addicts
Although there is some debate, the majority of medical associations like the American Medical Association consider addiction a disease. Diseases, whether addiction or diabetes, can require a lifetime of management. There are also some professionals who consider it impossible to “cure” addiction. Instead, it can be managed throughout life, but there will always be temptations and relapses.
Remembering that your friend is struggling with a disease, one that requires management, can help you help them.
Part of being a good friend requires looking out for yourself first. The idea that you “can’t pour from an empty pot” is paramount when supporting someone you love.
Addiction includes shifts in how the body and brain functions. These changes might be obvious and can impact your friendship. It’s not a “requirement” that you maintain the friendship no matter what, especially if it’s become toxic for you.
However, if someone you care about is on a new, clean path of addiction recovery, here are a few ways you can be a pillar of support:
• Talk in the present. Instead of asking, “How are you?” ask “How are you feeling today?” This is sound advice for anyone facing a struggle. Too broad of a question can lead to feeling overwhelmed or the person simply responding with a succinct answer. By addressing feelings in smaller steps, it opens discourse.
• Offer clear, achievable ways to help. For instance, take them out for coffee in an environment that isn’t tempting for them. Bring a home-cooked meal if they’ve just arrived home from inpatient rehabilitation and don’t have fresh food. Go for a walk together and practice active listening.
• Work on those active listening skills. Nobody actively listens intuitively. It takes practice and a lot of practice. Most people are simply waiting for their turn to talk, and a lot of people have a desire to “solve the problem” rather than being a sounding board. Active listening requires giving proper non-verbal cues and asking thoughtful follow-up questions that aren’t judgmental.
• Recognize if the situation is harmful to your mental health. Particularly if you’re an empath, or have empath tendencies, supporting a friend who’s in recovery from addiction can be taxing in your mental and emotional health. Practice self-care, which can include learning to say no and carve out time for yourself.
• Only offer suggestions when asked. While you may have just read a fantastic book on addiction recovery or stumbled across an online support group, if your friend is in addiction recovery they likely already have the professional resources necessary—and if they don’t, they don’t want to be inundated with information. Friends might be trying to help, but it can come across as pushy with a lack of understanding.
• Practice restriction yourself in the early days of recovery. There will come a time when you can ask your friend if they’re comfortable if you have a drink (or engage in their addiction) in front of them, but it will take time. In the early stages, you can help them out by avoiding situations where you’re likely to indulge altogether. It’s usually best to avoid key environments, such as a bar, so it’s not obvious that you’re potentially inconveniencing yourself for them which can lead to guilt.
• Don’t go into Mom mode. Your friend is hurting, and your compassion, empathy, and sympathy can turn into parenting them. This won’t do either of you any good. They will resent you, and you them, because this isn’t the friendship roles you’ve established. Listen, be open and available on terms that are still healthy for you, but avoid taking on a caretaker role.
• Avoid relating unless you’re in a complementary role (such as a sponsor). “I know how it feels,” is one of the most irritating ways to start a sentence. Even if you’ve recovered from addiction yourself, avoid comparing your situation with your friends’ unless they explicitly ask. It can feel like their experience has been undermined or that they don’t have a welcome source to talk to.
Consider talking to a professional therapist who specializes in addiction. They’ll be able to provide you with the facts, framework and provide ideas for helping your friend through this tough time. If you don’t feel the friendship is sustainable right now, it’s perfectly fine to shelve it. Ideally, talking with your friend about your decision can help avoid confusion, but that’s not always feasible or safe. Make a decision that’s healthy and smart for you.