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Friendship in Recovery: Navigating the Journey Together with Support and Understanding

Addiction can affect anyone, regardless of background. According to the 2022 United States Survey on Drug Use and Health, 46.8 million Americans over the age of 12 battled a substance use disorder in the past year (American Addiction Centers, 2024). It is a disease that impacts not only the life of the individual using substances but also those around them. A 2023 survey found that two-thirds of Americans had been impacted by addiction through their own experience or that of a loved one (Reinberg, 2023). Watching a person struggle with substance use disorder can be challenging and leave you feeling helpless. When you see someone you love struggling, you naturally want to help. However, addiction is complex and difficult to navigate. There is no one-size-fits-all approach but there are things you can do. 

First, it is crucial to educate yourself about addiction to better understand your loved one and their situation. The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as "a chronic disease characterized by drug seeking and use that is compulsive, or difficult to control, despite harmful consequences" (NIH, n.d). Addiction impacts brain function, particularly the "reward circuit." This system motivates us to repeat behaviors necessary for survival, such as eating (NIH, n.d). When an individual takes drugs, the brain’s reward circuit is flooded with dopamine, reinforcing drug-taking behavior (NIH, n.d). With repeated use, the brain builds tolerance, reducing the ability to experience the initial effects. Over time, other brain functions like memory, behavior, and judgment become negatively affected (NIH, n.d).

Addiction can result from various factors or their combination. On the natural side, a family history of substance abuse and mental illness accounts for about half of a person’s risk of developing a substance use disorder (NIH, n.d). On the nurture side, peer pressure, unhealthy family dynamics, and socioeconomic status can heighten an individual’s risk for developing an addiction. These factors are exacerbated by the age at which a person first uses a substance. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that those who began using drugs as teens had a higher risk of developing addiction (NIH, n.d). While these factors significantly impact an individual’s risk, they do not guarantee the development of an addiction.

Additionally, supporting a loved one in addiction involves aiding their recovery without enabling their addiction. Enabling is when "a person contributes to the self-destructive or compulsive behavior of another person" (Anderson, 2024). Through your behaviors or thoughts, you might inadvertently condone your loved one’s addiction. Examples include giving money that you know will be used to buy substances, blaming yourself for their addiction, minimizing their substance use, or using with them.

To avoid enabling, recognize their addiction and set clear, healthy boundaries. Your loved one may not be ready to seek treatment immediately, so it's important to set and maintain healthy expectations while they are in active addiction. Sometimes, you might need to limit or cease communication with your loved one due to their behavior. Upholding boundaries in these situations is crucial to protecting yourself and your loved one without enabling their behavior. Besides setting boundaries, you can also support your loved one through professional treatment options like therapy, inpatient treatment, or even staging an intervention.

Lastly, one of the most important ways to support a loved one through addiction is to take care of yourself. Addiction impacts everyone close to the individual. Watching someone you love suffer from substance use disorder can be heartbreaking. You may feel hopeless, constantly expecting the worst. It’s vital to reach out for help when you need it. Leaning on your support network or joining a support group can help relieve stress and anxiety. Support groups like Al-Anon assist families and loved ones of people struggling with a substance use disorder (Anderson, 2024). Additionally, you must practice self-compassion. Avoid blaming yourself for your loved one’s addiction, and learn to forgive yourself. Life is full of hardships, and things aren’t always perfect—and that’s okay. As the saying goes, "You can’t help anyone if you don’t help yourself."


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