I’ve seen and believe that connection is the opposite of addiction. (Research by Johann Hari and the Rat Park experiment shows it, too.) If you have a relationship or connection with someone struggling with substance use or addiction, you can play a role—however small or large—in their healing and recovery.
Before you dig in and start doing the work of a sober ally, it’s important to note that you’re not obligated to help. You have to want to assist your loved one, and also be in a place where you feel you’re able to provide some kind of support—even if it’s small. It’s also important to note that providing support and trying to manage the life of someone who is struggling with addiction are two different things. Oftentimes, we can get stuck in trying to navigate what our role should be in the lives of those we love who are facing addiction, and we might inadvertently take on too much responsibility for their well-being.
First and foremost, you have to take care of yourself. In your life, you come first. If you do love someone dealing with addiction and want to help, the guide below might help.
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Before you reach out to your loved one, check in with yourself and make sure:
- You’re stable and strong enough to do so. Put on your own oxygen mask first. The quality of the support we give is dependent on the quality of our own self-care.
- You have the support of other friends and family. Share the weight and the worry. You can take a break when needed!
- You know how much you have to give. Know your limits. You may not be in a place in which you can offer your entire self, so remember that supporting someone isn’t a zero sum. Even small acts like a kind text message can help.
What follows is what I’ve found to work in my experience navigating my husband’s addiction and loving him through it. Much of what I’ve learned comes from Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT), a kind of behavioral therapy developed by Dr. Robert Meyers. It’s been proven in multiple clinical trials to be most effective for a person of influence to support a loved one struggling with addiction and resistant to treatment.
A few years ago now, I had front-row seats to my best-friend-now-husband’s downward spiral with addiction.
His isolating behavior confused all of those around him. Naturally, his support network fell away. We were frustrated with his irregularity, deception, and distance, and responded by looking away while waiting for him to hit a rock bottom. We thought we’d be able to just re-emerge in his life when we could finally activate that one answer: Rehab.
But the truth is that despite his addiction affecting our relationship, I couldn’t look away. My intuition kept nudging, saying to me, this guy needs a hug. Probably a thousand of them. He was struggling and yet those who loved him felt lost about how to help. When others turned away from him, I just kept showing up. It made all the difference.
It’s uncomfortable to watch someone self-destruct, and the narrative we’ve inherited that addiction is shameful doesn’t help us figure out how we can help. It’s an old trope that people grappling with addiction need to “toughen up,” or that they should know that “no one’s coming to save you.”
You can buck this stereotype by offering the right kind of support and mobilizing others who are also ready to reach out to do the same.
Understanding Addiction from the Ally Perspective
It’s difficult to understand the complexities of addiction when facing it for the first time as an ally. You may ask yourself why this person in your life is hurting themselves, not answering the phone, or why you get a shiver up your spine every time they tell you that they’re fine. Rest assured, you’re not alone. In fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that all of these feelings (and more) are normal for those who are helping a friend or loved one grapple with addiction.
The CRAFT method helps put these feelings into context and provides a series of behavioral tools to help us concerned friends and family take care of ourselves and support positive change in our loved ones. The CRAFT protocol relies on the love and influence of a person’s support network (be they friends, family, or colleagues) to help reinforce positive change. At its core, CRAFT takes advantage of the fact that we, as friends and loved ones, are in an optimal position to help. We care deeply about the person who is suffering, are highly motivated to help, and know heaps about our loved one’s habits—all of which primes us to help them change.
Regardless of whether or not a loved one gets professional treatment, CRAFT has been shown more effective than alternatives (Al-Anon/Nar Anon & Confrontational Interventions) to decrease their harmful substance use and help the concerned friends and family members improve their own mental and physical health.
1. Prioritize yourself.
First and foremost, you must take care of yourself. It can be hard to prioritize ourselves when we love someone struggling with addiction but we must. The quality of our own self-care is directly related to the quality of support we can give someone who is struggling.
Recovery is a long journey. If you take the journey alongside a loved one, your wellbeing is imperative. Loving your own life, maintaining your relationships, and pursuing your dreams provide an example to the person who is struggling—a reminder that life can again be joyful.
2. Let others in.
Addiction is isolating for everyone involved—even for you, the person providing support. Resist the temptation to hole up. You need connections to stay healthy and happy, just like your loved one. Maintain your relationship and let others in to help out where possible.
When you’re with others who aren’t as close to your loved one’s situation, just remember to be discerning with whom and what you share. Tell people only what you think the person who is struggling would be comfortable with you revealing. If you’re not sure what should be public, ask your loved one.
3. Lead by example.
Prolonged substance use affects the brain’s pleasure-reward system as well as the parts of the mind that govern rational, reasoning, and higher-level decision-making processes. One of the most important things you can do is help your loved one simplify decisions and set up conditions to reinforce the progress toward recovery.
I know my self-care practices—rising early, meditating, and cooking nutritious meals—inspire my husband to do similar things. He sees that these activities bring me joy and help me keep grounded and balanced.
4. Stay connected and reinforce worthiness.
As hard as it might be to provide support and encouragement for a person on the path to recovery, it’s vital to check in with them. This simple kindness reinforces positive actions.
A text, chat, or in-person moment reminds the person in recovery what we love or admire about them. This alone can help guide their day and keep them on the right path. Even something like “I love your laugh” or “I really appreciate your help with the dishes” or reminiscing about a happy memory can be enough. When we point out that spark that we know our loved one has in them, it can help them remember it as well.
5. Don’t move the goalposts.
Behavior change takes time. Patterns don’t disappear overnight, which means that you, as a friend and ally, need to be patient. Addiction affects brain chemistry; although the brain can heal, it’s a long process.
Along the way, keep in mind how far your loved one has come. See the big picture. Complaining about how the bed wasn’t made today doesn’t take into account last month when they couldn’t even get out of bed. Give them credit for the leaps and bounds they’ve made and are continuing to make.
6. Celebrate the small stuff.
As we make sure not to rush progress, it’s important that we celebrate little victories. Small behavioral changes add up but they don’t always get the attention they deserve.
Everyday tasks like showing up to work on time and doing laundry are seemingly minor steps. But they have major significance in recovery. Celebrating the choices that indicate the regrowth of positive and healthy behaviors can be transformative, especially when you acknowledge that they’re taking the place of harmful or negative ones.
7. Remain positive (even in the face of a slip-up).
It’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of a loved one’s recovery process. It’s even easier to fear a slip-up as something that might wipe out progress entirely. But changing substance use behavior is just like making any habit change. It’s hard—and even harder sometimes because of the strength of the chemicals involved.
A slip-up may bring back memories of how bad things were. It may evoke fears of spiraling back. Don’t lose sight of the progress that’s been made, however; just as we wouldn’t admonish someone for slipping on their efforts to cut back on sugar from their diet, we shouldn’t do so with those changing their relationship with drugs or alcohol. We’re on the journey toward recovery together. Sometimes a slip is just a slip.
Instead, get curious about what led to the behavior and use supportive communication to explore what happened. Your understanding might just be able to help your loved one prevent addiction from happening again.
8. Remember to listen.
Remaining positive is important, but so is listening. Deep listening—the kind that helps you find hidden clues and subtext—is crucial when helping someone you love go through recovery.
My husband tried to tell me what was going wrong in his life and how that reinforced his substance use. I kept telling him that we should remove the substance and then move on to other life problems. Although this seemed like the most intuitive strategy to me at the time, it wasn’t right for him and wasn’t ultimately helpful.
Listening gives us clues on where to focus to help someone we care about when they’re struggling. As long as we pay close attention not only to the words being said but also their subtext, we can truly be there for those we care about in their moment of need.
There are many different options for how to heal. Listening allows us to help identify what’s right for right now. Rehab and AA are not the only answers. Many have found sobriety through alternative programs, like Tempest membership.
9. Ask for permission (and roll with resistance).
Many of us might want to force difficult conversations with loved ones in addiction, hoping that an uncomfortable talk might lead to getting help. The best thing you can do, however, is to wait until the other party is ready.
For most people struggling with addiction, the period after a slip-up brings a deep shame cycle—a kind of physical and mental hangover. Forcing a conversation at this point is rarely (if ever) fruitful. The window to help will open, so let them know you’re ready whenever they are.
10. Build a new relationship and focus on the future.
Recovery brings opportunities for both you and your loved one to renew your relationship. Your connection won’t be tied to the frustrations or pain caused by addiction, and, instead, focused on the hope for the future.
As much as your loved one needs to learn how to relate to the world without harmful substance use, you also need to understand your relationship to the new version of this person you care about so much.
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Being an ally to a friend, family member, or colleague with addiction can be a scary and intimidating position. But remember: You’re not alone and you don’t have to carry the burden all by yourself.