The Mighty Logo

How Family and Friends Shape Recovery

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Whether you’re a parent, partner, sibling, or friend, the substance use disorder (SUD) journey isn’t limited to the person directly affected by it. You are an integral part of this process. The path might seem fraught with confusion, fear, and sometimes hopelessness. Your role can be the beacon of light guiding a loved one towards recovery.

The Impact of Addiction on Loved Ones

When a person lives with substance use disorder, the impact reverberates far beyond them. Suppose you’re a family member or friend of someone navigating through SUD. You’ll be entangled in emotional, psychological, and even physical challenges in that case. It is common to experience:

  • Anxiety and worry: A near-constant state of worry becomes a new normal. Will they be OK? What will happen next?
  • Guilt: Often, you may feel unjust guilt or responsibility for a loved one’s condition.
  • Resentment: A buildup of resentment is not uncommon, especially if the person with SUD seems unresponsive to efforts to help.
  • Isolation: The stigma associated with SUD often isolates families, as you may feel ashamed to discuss the issue openly.
  • Stress: The unpredictability of life with substance use disorder can be highly stressful, affecting your mental health.
  • Depression: Seeing a loved one struggle can bring on feelings of despair and helplessness, which could lead to depression.
  • Cognitive dissonance: The contrasting emotions of love, anger, hope, and despair can create mental confusion and tension.
  • Medical expenses: The cost of treatments, medications, and possibly hospital stays can increase quickly.
  • Loss of employment: Often, the person with SUD is one of many who may lose a job. You may also need help to maintain regular employment due to the demands of caregiving.
  • Legal fees: The financial strain grows exponentially if substance use leads to legal issues.
  • Communication breakdown: Honest conversations are rarely replaced by arguments or complete silence.
  • Neglected relationships: The focus on the person with SUD can lead to other family relationships being neglected, affecting the emotional well-being of everyone involved.
  • Trust issues: Repeated lies or deceptive behavior by the person with SUD can severely erode trust within the family unit.

Knowing the comprehensive impact of substance use disorder on loved ones can be disheartening, but let’s not forget — awareness is the first step towards change. And while the journey is unquestionably arduous, it’s filled with opportunities for growth, closeness, and understanding. 

Family Therapy and Support Groups

When a loved one is grappling with substance use disorder, the entire family walks through a never-ending tunnel. You don’t have to walk it alone. Family therapy and support groups can serve as a collective flashlight, guiding the family unit out of darkness and into a space of understanding, healing, and resilience.

The Magic of Family Therapy

Family therapy is a form of psychological counseling that helps improve communication and resolve conflicts within the family. In the context of substance use disorder, it often involves the person living with the disorder and their immediate family members.

How Does It Help?

  • Improved communication: Family therapy helps break down barriers of mistrust and enables open dialogue.
  • Conflict resolution: Address underlying issues that may contribute to tension and enable more effective ways to resolve conflict.
  • Collective responsibility: It fosters a sense of shared responsibility for both the problem and the solution, avoiding blame and encouraging support.
  • Education: Therapists can provide invaluable information on the nature of SUD, helping to dispel myths and provide clarity.

The Power of Support Groups

Support groups are informal gatherings or online forums where family members and friends of people with SUD can share experiences, strategies, and, most importantly, emotional support.

Why Join One?

  • Shared experience: Realizing you’re not alone can be an immense relief. Shared stories can provide invaluable insights and coping mechanisms.
  • Emotional outlet: A space where you can express your worries, fears, and frustrations without judgment can be therapeutic.
  • Networking: Support groups often provide information on resources, upcoming events, and new treatment options.
  • A break from isolation: Sometimes, the stigma associated with substance use disorder can be isolating. Support groups offer a community where the stigma is replaced by understanding.

Both family therapy and support groups are essential components in a comprehensive approach to addressing substance use disorder. They allow you to tackle the issue as a united front, making navigating the burdensome journey easier.

Setting Boundaries: The Fine Line Between Support and Enabling

We understand. On one side, there’s the genuine, heart-wrenching desire to help. Conversely, there is a real danger of enabling the harmful behavior you’re trying to prevent. The balance lies in setting clear, healthy boundaries.

What Are Boundaries?

Boundaries are the rules and limits we set in relationships, dictating how we expect to be treated by others and how we will interact with them. In the context of substance use disorder, these boundaries become especially critical. They serve as a guideline for what is acceptable and what isn’t for the person with SUD and the family or friends involved.

Why Set Boundaries?

  • Self-preservation: Caring for someone with SUD can be emotionally and mentally draining. Boundaries help you protect your well-being.
  • Avoiding enabling: Boundaries help ensure you’re not making it easier for your loved one to continue their substance use.
  • Establishing mutual respect: When boundaries are clear, fostering an environment of respect and understanding is easier.
  • Clarity and consistency: Having established guidelines can help eliminate confusion or manipulation.

Tips for Setting Boundaries

  • Be clear and specific: The more precise you are, the less room for misunderstandings. For example, you might say, “If you come home under the influence, you will need to find another place to stay for the night.”
  • Communicate openly: Open dialogue is critical. Make sure you communicate your boundaries clearly and calmly without being confrontational.
  • Consult a professional: If you’re unsure how to set effective boundaries, professionals in addiction care can offer expert guidance.
  • Review and adapt: Boundaries may change as life changes. Periodic reassessment ensures that your boundaries meet the current needs and circumstances of all involved.
  • Follow through: The most crucial aspect of setting boundaries is adhering to them. Inconsistent enforcement will weaken your boundaries and might encourage undesirable behavior.
  • It’s OK to say no: Sometimes, the most potent boundary is saying no, even when it’s tough. It is a healthy coping mechanism. Remember, refusing to enable is not the same as refusing to help.

Setting boundaries is a continuous process. It’s about creating a relationship environment where everyone feels respected and valued while holding each other accountable.

And remember, setting boundaries isn’t a sign of withholding love or support. Instead, it’s an expression of a well-defined, mature form of love that respects both your well-being and that of your loved one. It is one of the most effective ways to walk that fine line between support and enabling, ensuring that we’re part of the solution, not the problem.

Rebuilding Trust: A Two-Way Street

Whether it’s broken promises, lies, or disappointments, the erosion of trust feels like losing the foundation of the relationship. While fragile, it is also resilient. Yes, it can be rebuilt. However, rebuilding trust is a two-way street that requires commitment, patience, and, above all, action from both parties.

Why Is Trust Important?

Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship, binding people together and allowing for vulnerability, support, and mutual respect. In the realm of substance use disorder, the stakes are even higher. The absence of trust can make recovery incredibly challenging, as it creates an atmosphere of tension and suspicion. On the flip side, a trusting relationship can significantly bolster recovery efforts.

Breaking Down Barriers

For the Person with Substance Use Disorder:

  • Open communication: One of the best ways to rebuild trust is through honest, open dialogue. The time for secrets and deceit is over. Don’t be afraid to share, even if you have experienced a relapse at some point.
  • Consistency: Say what you mean and mean what you say. Consistency in words and actions slowly rebuilds credibility.
  • Accountability: Own your mistakes and make amends where possible. Accountability fosters respect and understanding.

For Family and Friends:

  • Listening: Open your ears and your heart. Listen without preconceptions or judgment, creating a safe space for open dialogue.
  • Forgiveness: It’s easier said than done, but forgiveness is crucial for rebuilding trust. Remember that forgiveness is a gift to yourself and the other person.
  • Patience: It takes time to rebuild trust. Be patient and give your loved one the time they need to prove their commitment to change.

The Power of Small Steps

You might be tempted to look for grand gestures or quick fixes, but trust is often rebuilt through small, consistent actions over time. Celebrate these tiny victories — each one is a step closer to restoring what was lost.

Checks and Balances

Keep track of progress. Both parties should be open to periodic “check-ins” where you discuss what’s working and what isn’t. This mutual accountability can go a long way in cementing trust.

Rebuilding trust is undoubtedly a complicated process, and setbacks are to be expected. But the beauty of trust is that it can always be reconstructed if both parties are willing to put in the effort. So, as you tread the path of recovery together, let the shared commitment to trust serve as your North Star. It may take time, and it will test your limits. Still, once rebuilt, this trust can be a resilient foundation for a lifetime of support and mutual respect.

Caring for or living with substance use disorder is challenging, but you’re not alone. Recognizing the emotional toll, seeking support through therapy or groups, setting clear boundaries, and working diligently to rebuild trust are essential. Remember, every step you take is a testament to your love and resilience. Amidst the challenges, let compassion guide you, and know that with patience and understanding, you and your loved one can find healing and a renewed bond.

Getty image by Goodboy Picture Company

Originally published: October 20, 2023
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home