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How to Practice Self-Care While Supporting a Loved One in Recovery

A Black woman with her eyes closed, head tilted toward the sunPhoto credit: Leighann Blackwood via Unsplash

Anyone supporting a loved one who is living with addiction knows the process of recovery requires patience, willpower, and a tremendous amount of support. Fortunately for those in recovery, there is an abundance of resources available to help them find a path to a fulfilling sober life. The caregivers supporting someone in recovery—the parents, siblings, spouses, friends, and colleagues—often find they need support and care for themselves, too. Those resources aren’t as well-documented or readily available though, so caregivers might not know where to start.

If you care for someone in recovery, you can find external support by connecting with community groups and resources, or you can go inwards by practicing more personal methods of self-care. 

Caring for a loved one in recovery can be emotionally taxing and, at times, may seem all-consuming. But it’s important that you give just as much, if not more, attention and care to yourself as you do to your loved one. Community is a powerful reminder that you are not alone and that your emotions are valid. And self-care is one of the easiest ways for you to replenish your strength, find peace, and give yourself the love and care that you so deserve. If you can find the time and space to practice self-care while supporting a loved one in recovery, you’ll likely find that tending to your well-being first will ultimately help you become an even better supporter for them.

Groups for Families and Friends of Those in Recovery

Many caregivers find community by joining support groups that cater to family members and friends of individuals in recovery. These groups can be a great place for caregivers to pull themselves out of isolation and find connection and sympathy from others who are facing similar situations. Support group meetings also provide a welcoming space for caregivers to process their own emotions. It’s one of the most effective ways to practice self-care while supporting a loved one in recovery.

Attend an Al-Anon Meeting

One resource for caregivers is Al-Anon. Al-Anon is a family recovery program that acknowledges the importance each family member plays in a recovering person’s journey. The program offers meetings in locations around the world for adult and teen family members of individuals in recovery. During these meetings, you can connect with peers and learn from the experiences they’ve had while caring for people who are working through alcohol use disorder.

Some people find Al-Anon meetings to be helpful because they provide an opportunity to express feelings about the challenges they’ve faced while supporting their loved one in recovery. Still, others may be drawn to these meetings under the assumption that Al-Anon will provide them with techniques to better control the behavior of their loved ones—something the program is simply not designed to do. As a 12-step recovery program, Al-Anon is designed to help those who love someone that is struggling with addiction reclaim their own lives. 

Try SMART Recovery

Another similar option for caregivers is the SMART Recovery Family & Friends program. SMART Recovery offers meetings, in-person and online, that are designed to provide family members and friends of a person in recovery with coping techniques to help them find peace of mind. Similar to Al-Anon, the program’s free group meetings also offer an opportunity for participants to share and learn from one another’s experiences.

Check out Learn to Cope

Learn to Cope is a peer-led support group for family members or friends of individuals in recovery. The group has a chapter in Florida, 27 chapters in Massachusetts, and a private online forum with over 11,000 members—making it possible to attend meetings online or in-person, depending on your location. Learn to Cope meetings are hosted by trained volunteers and staff members, and often feature guest speakers who are in long-term recovery or are professionals in the recovery field.

While meetings hosted by Al-Anon, SMART Recovery, Learn to Cope, and other similar groups are attractive options for caregivers to find community, they do have their share of limitations. If you are not comfortable with the religion or recovery philosophies that serve as the foundation for the 12-step or SMART recovery programs these meetings tend to draw from, you may prefer alternative paths to finding community.

Build Your Own Community

You don’t necessarily need to join one of these groups to take care of yourself while you’re supporting someone who is in recovery. You also have the option of building a community of your own.

One way to start building your own community is to connect with others who have similar experiences by joining recovery support groups on social media. Various organizations like Families in Support of Treatment (F.I.S.T), Parents of Addicted Loved Ones (PAL), and other groups on Facebook offer a private digital space where group members can share their experiences with the group at large or connect with other members 1:1. You can also search Meetup to find support groups that may offer face-to-face meetings in your area.

Work With a Therapist

A therapist can be a powerful addition to your support community. If you’ve never tried therapy, there are many ways to find a therapist, psychologist, or counselor to support you. Websites like Psychology Today and GoodTherapy allow you to browse therapist profiles and schedule face-to-face or online therapy sessions. There are also digital options for therapeutic support through companies like TalkSpace and BetterHelp, which offer the opportunity for you to communicate with a therapist via online text messaging or chat.

Once you choose a therapist, there are a few areas it might be good to address in your therapy sessions to make the most of your experience:

  • Ask your therapist for their professional advice on new coping skills you might adopt to better manage your emotions when facing challenging circumstances with your loved one.
  • Talk to your therapist about ways you can foster resilience. Your therapist might recommend that you consider a course in mindfulness or yoga, among other actions advised by the American Psychological Association (APA) for building resilience in the face of adversity or stress. 
  • Discuss the issue of codependency and how it might show up in your relationship with your loved one in recovery. Mental Health America defines codependency as “relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive,” which is why it often affects the family members or friends of people who are living with addiction. 

Try Family Therapy (If All Parties Are Willing)

Family therapy is exactly what it sounds like: You and your loved one participate in therapy together. You might not think of family therapy as a way to practice self-care while supporting a loved one in recovery, but working on a relationship in a positive way is a great way to take care of yourself.

Massachusetts General Hospital’s Recovery Research Institute defines family therapy as, “a branch of psychotherapy that focuses on family‐level assessment to address the interdependent nature of familial relations and transform these complex relational patterns to promote long-term recovery.”

So long as all parties are willing to participate with an open mind, family therapy can be healing for your loved one, and for you. The setting provides a safe space for both parties to speak openly about their experiences with an objective perspective—the therapist—present to help you navigate the dynamics of the relationship.

Much like individual therapy, family therapy can help you develop different methods and practices to care for yourself as you support your loved one. It can also help you and your loved one get to the root of issues that might be affecting your relationship. 

Figure Out What Self-Care Looks Like for You

In addition to building community, you can can (and deserve to) take care of yourself through other methods of self-care. Self-care is defined as “the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health.” It might take some trial and error to figure out what practicing self-care while supporting a loved one in recovery looks like for you, but your practice doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.

This means anything from attending a meeting when you feel the need for peer support to saying no to your loved one so you can establish a needed boundary qualifies as a step you can take to better care for yourself.

One of the primary goals of self-care is to reach a state of wellness, which the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines as achieving some semblance of balance in the environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual aspects of your being. Activities like journaling, listening to audiobooks, taking a walk, or learning a new trade can all contribute to your overall wellness and are therefore powerful tools for self-care.

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Even on the most difficult days with your loved one in recovery, self-care is possible. So remember to fill your own cup first, because, as the saying goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.”

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