Struggling with a substance use disorder can seem like the end of your life, especially for those who hit rock bottom. Rehab is a second chance, a new opportunity to live life without substances, and, for many, a constant uphill battle. Organizations like SAHMSA list family and social support as one of the primary factors in motivating addicts to get clean or sober, and one of the most important in helping them to stay in recovery. While you can’t make choices for your loved one or control their actions to prevent relapse, you can be there and offer your support throughout the process. Most importantly, it will help.
But, with generations of misinformation and public misunderstanding regarding what addiction is and how it works, it’s difficult to know what that support means. The friends and family of addicts have a difficult path, involving both forgiving past mistakes and fixing damaged relationships while taking steps to accept a new relationship. How this plays out over the long term will heavily depend on the individual, your relationship and proximity to them, and their willingness to change, but the following advice will help you to be supportive after rehab.
Experiences change people. No one can go through a heavily traumatic event and come out the same on the other side. This is especially true for people suffering from a substance use disorder. SUDs result in changes to the neural pathways and chemical production in the brain. Over time, and after years of abstinence, this will likely restore, but never in the same ways as the original. People heal, but they don’t get a reset button. The person who comes out of rehab will be a person with experience as an addict, behavioral therapy and training to teach them new coping mechanisms, and likely trauma relating to interpersonal relationships, violence, and stigma and guilt.
Accept that they will never be the same, don’t demand they be the person they were before, and accept the changes.
Why is this important? Giving people a space to recover in, to figure out who they are and want to be, and without the expectation or recovery to “get back to how life used to be” will give them space to recover.
The easiest way to understand your addicted loved one is to understand addiction. Whether you’ve already learned about addiction and how it works or not, it’s important to keep learning. Your loved one is struggling with a behavioral disorder, and one that affects them as intrinsically as bipolar disorder or depression. They can heal and recover, but they will always live with the effects of that disorder. Learning about how addiction works will help you when making decisions regarding how to treat your loved one, how to react, and in understanding their actions.
Your loved one is also likely struggling with the physical and mental health implications of substance abuse. People coming out of rehab struggle with nutritional disorders, emotional blunting, post-recovery anxiety and depression, trauma, gastrointestinal damage, liver damage, and a host of other issues. Learning about those issues and helping your loved one to cope will allow you to be immensely supportive of their new life.
Make Adjustments for Their Lifestyle
People moving out of rehab have to make changes to their life in order to stay in recovery. Some of these are easy to predict. For example, your loved one should likely stay away from alcohol for a bit and then avoid drinking it. Others are more difficult to see upfront and might require more work if you want to help out and be supportive.
Substances – Avoid having substances around for a bit, make an effort to go to alcohol-free events and parties, and don’t spend time with this person around other friends who might be insensitive or who might attempt to get your loved one to drink or use.
Diet – Most recovering addicts are asked to maintain a relatively healthy diet, avoid binge-eating, and learn how to cook and take care of themselves in a conscientious way. Nutritional therapy is important for helping people recover from alcohol use disorder because it helps the brain to recover, helps the body to recover, and prevents depression and anxiety symptoms related to nutritional deficiencies. Building the discipline and putting in effort to cook and be creative to food is also helpful as part of recovery. Here, you can be supportive, make diet changes where applicable, and, if you live together, cook together and make meals a fun thing.
Exercise – Most addicts are asked to engage in at least light exercise 5 days a week, for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. Adopting exercise habits helps someone in recovery to improve energy and mood, resist cravings, build discipline, and help the body to recover. Going along with exercise programs, joining in, and working to make exercise a fun and social thing can be an excellent way to support your loved one.
Dealing with addiction is difficult and often traumatic. Substance abuse changes how family hierarchy works, damages relationships, and creates negative behavior patterns from both sides. Many people cannot overcome the lasting effects addiction has on their relationships without help. It’s important to be able to honestly evaluate your relationships and to seek professional help where needed. Here, family therapy is often provided as part of rehab, but is also available on its own as well. You can attend family therapy with other family members, with your loved one in recovery, and by yourself, although most programs will require instances of all three.
Offer Nonjudgmental Listening
No matter where your loved one is on their journey to recovery, they need to be able to talk about it and share with people. While many will eventually seek out support from self-help groups and therapists, it’s important they be able to share with the people they care about. Nonjudgmental listening is the practice of listening to people without judgement and without expectations. For example, your loved one may want to talk about cravings and wanting to use or drink again. You don’t have to understand this to be able to listen and offer support. Offer to talk to your loved one, to listen when they want to talk, and listen if they want to talk about cravings, relapsing, or needing help. You often don’t have to say anything, just listen, and respond based on what is needed in the situation.
People moving out of rehab have a long road of recovery in front of them. They might go through it smoothly, move into a diet and exercise program, and make the necessary lifestyle changes smoothly. They might also struggle, relapse, and have to go back to therapy. Being there for them throughout will require effort, love, and dedication on your side, but it’s often more about learning and being conscientious of your loved one and their needs rather than going out of your way to do things for them.