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Just The Facts: Friend in Recovery? How to Have Their Back

“JUST THE FACTS” is a series focused on substance use and mental health written especially for young adults and their parents. It’s easy to understand and judgment-free, giving young adults just the facts they need to help them make informed choices.

So your best friend is getting out of treatment, which probably feels weird to you. They may have been away for a long time. You might be confused.  It may feel weird to them too. 

Your friend is still the same person, but learned how addiction/substances affected their life.  They need to be focused on taking care of themselves, learning new coping mechanisms, and doing what’s best for them right now. It can be an emotional time — depending on their treatment experience and now learning a new normal.

This is how you can help:

Don’t use stigmatizing language. Words like addict and junkie can be hurtful to your friend. “Person first” language puts your friend first. Ask them how they want to identify: as a “person in recovery” or a “person experiencing a substance use disorder?”  Your friend is not their illness.

Let them know you care. Don’t know what to say? Start with “Hi, I’m thinking about you. How are you?” or “Is it okay if I ask you about your recovery?”   If you are ready for more,  you can offer to help them out with a ride, just hang out, or just go get some coffee.

Offer suggestions. If your friend feels comfortable,  talk about specific ways you can help. You can go with them  to an open 12-step meeting or medical visit, be a listening ear when they need to talk, or help them discover new activities you can still enjoy as friends. (And, you know we think gaming is a great way to hang out!) Maybe do activities that do not involve alcohol or substances. If you decide to go to a party, ask them, “ Are you comfortable with being here?”  or provide them a way out if they feel tempted to use.

Don’t take it personally when they don’t want to hang out.  Seriously. Your friend needs to do what is best for them now. They are trying to learn their “new normal. ”

Ask questions. Be the friend who is willing to ask questions, and willing to hear the answers. If they don’t want to open up, respect that too.

Be normal. Talk about other things you bonded over: sports, gaming, music, whatever.

Understand their feelings. Recognize that even after recovery, your friend is still dealing with a substance use disorder and with the stigma of addiction – and may feel embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, angry, frustrated. They may also have a new understanding of other issues that may have been masked by their substance use. Many times people with substance use feel lonely or isolated, let them know you are there for them if they ever need help or want to talk.

Understand triggers. People, places, or memories once associated with drinking or using  can trigger the brain to crave substances.  If there’s something you both enjoyed, but your friend wants to avoid it — respect their feelings.  And if they are open to it, find new activities to replace old ones. Finally – even if you partied together before, don’t drink or use around someone who is transitioning out of treatment.

Relapse/Recurrence happens.  Relapse/recurrence is not uncommon.   If it happens, don’t judge your friend. They are not weak: addiction is a chronic disease. When treating a chronic disease like this, it means changing behaviors, and relapse doesn’t mean treatment has failed. They may need to change, find more recovery support or adjust treatment.

Know the signs:   That said, there are things you can look for or do if you worry that they are using again. If you are concerned for your friend’s life, then contact someone you trust — teacher, coach, parent, or counselor —  to intervene if it’s a life or death matter.

Be patient. Try to accept your friend without judgment. Recovery is a life-long process. Keep encouraging them. If you are proud of your friend, say it! Also, be patient with your friendship, things might not go back to normal or the way it used to be.

Your feelings matter too. Like any relationship, friendships can suffer damage.   You don’t have to pretend it didn’t happen – just let them know you are open to talking about it when the time is right.

Respect their privacy. Their recovery is not a topic for social media. Ask them if they are comfortable with you sharing about their recovery with anyone or on any platform.

Be there for your friend. But, remember their sobriety is not your responsibility.