Helping Family and Friends Understand Addiction and Recovery

Most people, unless they are addicts in recovery, have no real framework for understanding addiction and recovery. To them, eating and drinking are simply normal parts of life. There is no obsession or compulsion related to them. Thus it is often difficult for the family of an addict to understand what the addict is going through. The family may be well intentioned and may desire to be helpful, but their lack of experience with addiction means their attempts may not only be unhelpful, but even harmful.

It is typical for addicts to expect that the people around them would understand what they need and how they would like to be treated. Self-centeredness is an enduring characteristic of the addict. Without having expectations, addicts can do quite a lot to help the people around them be helpful. Patience, openness and understanding are needed on both sides.

Tell your story. Though recounting one’s history through the trenches of addiction is not a pleasant experience, it is the key to helping people understand where you have been and where you are now. If another person has never been beaten by the rod of addiction, he or she has no way of understanding why you must be so committed to your recovery or why you may have to make certain hard decisions to preserve your sobriety. People cannot understand where you are right now—or where you hope to go—if they don’t understand where you have been. When friends and family members hear you speak candidly of the nightmare of your addiction, they become eager to support you in doing whatever it takes to stay clean.

Take them to a meeting. Many addicts find that bringing family and friends to a meeting (if they are willing) opens a door. Some may be suspicious that you have been seduced by a cult or a new magic solution to get you sober. Bringing loved ones to a meeting often eases their minds and helps them to learn what the 12-step program is really about. They hear the stories of others who are recovering and prospering. They see that the program has little to do with the caricatures they’ve seen on TV. They gain a new respect for the program you are working and the people who are helping you get well.

Give them a copy of the Big Book. Nothing spells out the problem of addiction and the solution found in the 12 steps like the book Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as “The Big Book.” If a friend or family member is curious about addiction and recovery or wants to learn how they may help you or other addicts in their life,  give them a copy of this book. The chapter “To Wives,” is especially addressed to the wife of an alcoholic, but can readily apply to any family member of an addict.

Be open. As addicts we became secretive, private, isolative people. This caused the people around us to be suspicious and wary of us and our behavior and our empty promises. Now that you are in recovery, you can give you friends and family the gift of peace of mind by keeping in touch and letting them know how you are doing. Do they have questions? Answer them with compassion. Are they concerned about you? Lovingly reassure them. Work to rebuild the trust and confidence you have lost through so many years of addiction and unpredictability.

Realize that they may not be able to understand and they don’t have to. Your recovery is contingent upon your actions solely. Many addicts that have successfully recovered never had the support or understanding of their families. While you are to do all that you can to help them understand and to reestablish a basis of trust, you must also accept that it may take months and even years to convince people that you have changed and that the 12-step program is right for you.

They may never agree with this approach, they may never acknowledge your addiction or your need for sobriety, they may never understood what you went through, they may never congratulate your recovery. And they don’t have to. You are on this path because it is right for you. If you have the support of others, wonderful, but you can and will recover either way. Many critics will come around when they see how your life is changing. It is not your job to argue or change minds. Just keep doing what you’re doing.