Often, people who use substances are also struggling with their mental health. It can be difficult to know what to do, how to support them, and how to keep yourself safe. The important thing to remember is that you can support your friend’s recovery without supporting their substance use. This can be done by educating yourself, giving grace, enforcing boundaries, and getting the support you need.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, “Addiction is defined 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.” NIDA goes on to explain that the changes made to the brain can have lasting effects. These effects can continue long after the substance use has ceased. As a result, addiction is identified as a disease of impaired self-control, not a conscious choice.
Research shows that addiction is a symptom of something deeper, often a mental disorder. When a mental health and substance use disorder (SUD) occur together, it is known as a co-occurring disorder. It is important to understand that addiction often develops in an attempt to feel better, as many people use alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate. NIDA confirms, “Some people with disorders like anxiety or depression may use drugs in an attempt to alleviate psychiatric symptoms. This may exacerbate their mental disorder in the long run, as well as increase the risk of developing addiction.”
Since it is common for people who use substances to struggle with mental health, it can be tricky to know how to support them in their healing journey. It is important to remember that you are not responsible for anyone else’s choices or healing. As a friend, you can encourage them to get help, but you cannot force them into healing.
The choice to enter treatment and heal from their substance use has to be made on their own. In addition, these types of diagnoses need to be addressed by licensed, trained professionals. It could be more harmful than helpful to try to address your friend’s struggles without professional help. Further, if you are genuinely concerned about your friend’s mental health or think they may be in danger, please contact emergency services immediately.
Now that we understand a few details of what influences substance use, we can discuss how you can support your friend’s recovery without supporting their substance use.
One important thing to keep in mind is that recovery is an extremely difficult and lengthy process. Complete healing is a lifetime commitment and requires drastic life changes. Therefore, massive amounts of grace and empathy will be necessary as your friend heals. You don’t have to excuse their behavior or fully understand everything they’re going through, especially if it feels damaging to your mental or physical health. However, simply offering a listening ear or letting them know that you’re on their team can go a long way.
It is also important to note that relapse can be common, especially for those that have received treatment for substance use. NIDA confirms, “Treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply rooted behaviors, and relapse doesn’t mean treatment has failed. When a person recovering from an addiction relapses, it indicates that the person needs to speak with their doctor to resume treatment, modify it, or try another treatment.”
Even though you are not responsible for someone else’s healing, you are responsible for your own. Sometimes the healthiest thing for everyone involved is to create boundaries. Boundaries are usually necessary for healing from any relational trauma.
The goal of enforcing boundaries is to help keep priorities in line without compromising safety or health. Sometimes boundaries can be difficult to stick to, especially if the person who the boundaries are being enforced upon does not understand or agree. This is where a licensed professional counselor could help establish appropriate boundaries that can keep everyone safe and healthy.
Supporting your friend’s recovery is not an easy task and it’s not something that can or should be done alone. Thankfully, you don’t have to. Treatment centers, like Sage Recovery, commonly extend their counseling services to friends and family of people who are in recovery.
At our facility, group therapy sessions are held regularly. These help give opportunities for friends and family to discuss their struggles and help each other heal. In addition, forms of psychotherapy, like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), might be helpful for your loved one working to achieve lasting wellness from addiction.
It takes courage to seek out help to heal from the hard things you’ve been through. Watching a loved one struggle with substance use is not exempt from difficulty or painful feelings. Sage Recovery is here to help. We offer individual, couples and family counseling, as well as group therapy sessions that can help you heal. Our empathetic and understanding staff are trained to provide trauma-informed care, so you can be sure that you will be treated with compassion and dignity as you heal. Whenever you’re ready, our master’s level clinicians are ready and willing to guide you through healing. Call us at (512) 306-1394 to find out how we can help.