Supporting your friend through the ups and downs of life is what friends do. Yet, how can you support a friend who is struggling with addiction without supporting their unhealthy life choices? That’s where we come in! We’re here to help you understand addiction, support your friend through their symptoms, and remind you to help yourself during the process.
One of the biggest ways you can support your friend is by trying to understand how addiction works. As the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains, “[A]ddiction is the most severe form of substance use disorder (SUD).” SUD occurs when an individual’s substance use leads to significant negative impacts on their life, yet they are unable to control their use of alcohol or other drugs.
Further, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences. It is considered a brain disorder, because it involves functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control.” Moreover, NIDA compares addiction to other chronic diseases like heart disease, stating, “Both disrupt the normal, healthy functioning of an organ in the body, both have serious harmful effects, and both are, in many cases, preventable and treatable. If left untreated, they can last a lifetime and may lead to death.”
Due to the chronic nature of addiction, it is not a conscious choice for anyone to become addicted to substances. Rather, addiction is often a symptom of something deeper, like a mental health disorder.
The NIMH highlights that people who struggle with addiction often do so because they are trying to self-medicate. This could be the result of the internal chaos or pain they feel because of a mental health disorder, unresolved trauma, or other untreated distress. They go on to explain that people with the following mental disorders are likely to also struggle with SUD:
When two or more diagnoses influence each other, they are known as co-occurring disorders. Contrary to what some may believe, the presence of co-occurring disorders does not mean one caused the other; however, they tend to make each other worse. For example, if your friend has unresolved trauma from their childhood, they may be struggling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Moreover, distressing symptoms of PTSD may motivate your friend to seek out alcohol and other drugs in an attempt to cope. In other words, in this case, the underlying cause of their SUD could be their unresolved trauma and associated PTSD.
Only licensed professionals can help people who are struggling with addiction. Examples of professionals that can help may include:
One of the best ways you can support your friend is to simply be a friend. You can support them by seeking to understand what they’re going through. Even if you don’t fully understand it, you can have empathy for their struggle without enabling, condoning, or encouraging their SUD.
It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways you can support your friend is by setting boundaries. If your friend is participating in harmful behaviors, you don’t have to be part of it. It is okay for you to let your friend know that you won’t be spending time with them if they continue to engage in unhealthy behaviors.
If you need help working through the relational dynamics, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) may be able to help you, too. An LPC will provide a listening ear, while also giving you tools to healthily process and cope with the consequences of your friend’s choices.
It is important to remember that it is not your job to save or heal them. Healing has to be a personal decision. Healthily healing from SUD is a lifelong journey, full of ups and downs, patience, and resilience. If they are not committed to healing for themselves, they will have a very hard time healing for someone else.
One of the most important things you can do for yourself and your friend is to be safe. This is where boundaries come in. While it’s not your job to support your friend’s unhealthy choices, if you so choose, you can still be a friend to them as they heal. However, can’t support your friend through this time if you put yourself in dangerous situations along with them.
If you are ever concerned about your friend’s or your own safety, don’t hesitate to contact emergency services immediately.
One of the best ways you can support your friend is by taking care of yourself. This may include reaching out to nearby treatment centers, like Sage Recovery, to find out if they have support groups for friends and family. You can also seek out group therapy so you can connect with others who are going through similar struggles.
Just as you would never want your friend to feel alone in their struggles, you have access to resources and ways to heal for yourself. You are not alone in this journey and it’s okay for you to keep yourself safe and attempt to heal.
Wanting to help your friend through their addiction is an extremely courageous and noble desire. It’s not wrong to want your loved ones to be healthy. Here at Sage Recovery, we understand all the complexities that come with loving someone who is struggling with addiction. Our masters-level clinicians are experts in their fields and can help people through the most difficult parts of their lives. That includes you. Even if you’ve never touched any type of substance, we can help you heal from the hard things you’ve been through – especially giving you support as you support your friend through a difficult season in their life. Reach out to us at (512) 306-1394 to find out how we can help.