Supporting a Loved One in Recovery

Joanne Gonsalves, MSW
Clinical Director, Crossroads Centre, Antigua

It is quite painful and devastating to watch a loved one suffer with the disease of addiction, and all too often friends and family suffer along with their loved one. Addiction is a family disease and progressive by nature with progression being defined as an increase in tolerance, frequency, and consequences. As addicts experience the progression of their own addiction, family members experience a parallel process of progression as well. An example of this would be, as the addict experiences an increase in feelings of guilt and shame, loved ones may also experience an increase in guilt and shame simultaneously. During active addiction, the greater the loss of control, unmanageability, and powerlessness the addict has over addiction, the greater the loss of control, unmanageability, and powerlessness the family has over their loved one. In Recovery friends and family may find themselves tied to the recovering addict in much the same way they were tied in active addiction. Great efforts are made to minimize negative influences or potential threats to recovery. This can be stressful for both the recovering addict and the supporters as the experience is similar in both active addiction and recovery and it is important to differentiate the two. It is not uncommon when someone you love gets sober that you may go out of your way to make sure they are “ok” and assist in managing their recovery, however this can feel very familiar to managing their addiction. Just as addiction is a family disease it is important to remember that recovery can also be family recovery. As addicts begin their journey into sobriety family members can begin their recovery by letting go of maladaptive behaviors that were created in direct response to active addiction. Some helpful tips for family members supporting loved ones in recovery:

  1. Self-care– it is vital that you start by taking care of yourself first. Remember you have been through a lot as well and may have neglected yourself along the way.
  2. Set boundaries– establish healthy boundaries with your loved one. What are acceptable behaviors and what are the agreements if there is a relapse. Let go of harmful practices like “babysitting” to protect them from potential relapse. This is often done to make you feel better, not them.
  3. Al anon – create your own support system. Go to meetings get a sponsor and “work your own program”. Be accountable for your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, not theirs.
  4. 12 step – support participation in a 12 Step program which can assist with sustaining recovery by acknowledging and celebrating sobriety.
  5. Manage your own recovery not theirs. Reactivate your life and reengage in things that you may have abandoned due to management, obsession, and preoccupation with the addict.
  6. People, places, and things – Recognize your own “triggers” and threats to your recovery (not theirs). Develop strategies/interventions to manage your own fears about possibility of relapse and what that would mean for you and your relationship. Remember you and your loved one may have different perspectives on what recovery looks like.
  7. Support and enabling – Learn the difference between support and enabling, which often occurs unintentionally. You can be supportive while saying no. Decide to NOT participate in behaviors/practices that are unhealthy and detrimental to both yours and their recovery.
  8. Promote a healthy lifestyle – by modeling healthy diet, exercise, and the importance of good sleep.
  9. Manage expectations – as it can take a long time for behaviours and patterns to change.
  10. Continuum of care – Support loved one’s involvement in an aftercare program to sustain a life and promote recovery.

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