Human beings are social creatures. Although we may not always like it, we need each other. For recovering addicts, who likely lost a lot of old drug-using friends when they got sober, this can be a particularly painful realization. Without conscious effort, early recovery can be a lonely time.
This is where one tried and true component of addiction treatment – a strong social support system – can bolster long-term recovery. A social network can keep recovering addicts invested in their recovery program even if they lose motivation, get discouraged, or become complacent or over-confident.
Research suggests that social relationships provide emotional support, a sense of belonging and stress relief. While higher levels of social connection improve quality of life, lower levels have been linked to relapse.
Here are five steps that will lead the recovering addict to the support they need:
1. Ask for Help. It is never a sign of weakness to ask for support. Authors and professors from the University of Denver, Robert Granfield and William Cloud, have noted that “though we live in a society that glorifies a meritocratic ideology of ‘pulling oneself up by the bootstrap,’ it is largely a cultural myth.”
In formulating their concept of “recovery capital,” which they define as the amount and quality of internal and external resources that one can bring to bear to initiate and sustain recovery from addiction, Granfield and Cloud found that social support was a key external resource that promoted long-term recovery.
A support network may include family, friends, colleagues, 12-Step groups, a sponsor, a therapist, a spiritual advisor and others. Loved ones typically want to help but don’t know how. Left to their old habits and roles, family members may enable rather than support. If a treatment center offers a family program, it is critical for loved ones to attend, participate in family therapy and stay involved throughout treatment. Family members also have a role to play when treatment ends, encouraging the recovering addict to follow their continuing care plan, holding boundaries and staying alert to the signs of relapse.
2. Choose Wisely. Early recovery offers a chance to build a support system from scratch. When deciding who to look to for support, ask the following questions:
• Do they misuse drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex or other activities?
• If in recovery, how long has this person been “walking the walk”?
• Does this person lead a healthy, balanced life?
• Is their attitude positive or negative? Do you feel good being around them?
Healthy social support is both honest and encouraging, challenging and compassionate. It comes from people who truly care about the recovering addict’s success and are equally supportive whether they’re excelling or struggling. The right combination of supporters will help the addict feel motivated in their recovery process without crossing the line into unrealistic thinking or enabling.
3. Attend 12-Step, SMART, or Rational Recovery Meetings. While friendship, in general, is important for well-being, research shows that a specific type of social connection aids in recovery: bonds with other recovering addicts. By engaging in fellowship with other people in recovery, recovering addicts can acquire effective coping skills and problem-solving strategies from their peers and share their experiences, strength and hope.
Finding a “home group” may take time. Some groups are more cohesive than others. The only way to find out is to try a variety of meetings. Once the recovering addict finds one that feels right, it is important to attend regularly, share their story, volunteer to help, exchange phone numbers, and hang around to socialize before and after the meeting. Also, online social networking communities can be a helpful complement (not a replacement) to peer-group involvement.
4. Avoid Dating for at Least One Year. Studies show that addicts are most likely to stay sober when they are focused almost exclusively on remaining abstinent for the first one to three years of recovery. Once a solid foundation is in place, they can integrate the pieces of a “normal” life, including romantic relationships, without jeopardizing their hard-won recovery.
5. Be Patient. Finding good friends requires being a good friend first. Social ties call on the recovering addict to practice the communication skills they learned in drug rehab, including honesty, assertiveness and empathy. Everyone – addicts and non-addicts – is on a journey to find meaning and fulfillment in their lives and will make mistakes along the way. The recovering addict must be patient and ask for the same in return.
Fellowship and camaraderie lighten what can be a heavy load in early recovery. No one can do it on their own and fortunately, they don’t have to. The journey may be solitary at times, but with help from good friends in recovery, it doesn’t have to be lonely.
David Sack, M.D., is an addiction psychiatrist and CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment programs that include Promises Treatment Centers, The Ranch, and The Recovery Place.
Stepping stones photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 6 Feb 2012