Many people start using substances (often as teens) as a way to engage socially. The reality is that almost all substances with abuse potential initially have a “social lubrication” effect (i.e., they are disinhibiting, relaxing, anxiety-reducing, buffers to self-criticism, enhancers of pleasure, etc). The problem? Further down the road (and sometimes right out of the gates), use patterns become much more solitary, withdrawn and isolated. Many have suffered through conflicts with family and friends and by the time they seek treatment feel disconnected from potential supporters of change. In addition, to break the destructive patterns that are in place when they seek treatment, they have to distance themselves from current friends who engage in the same behavior (party pals etc). The reality of “loss”…that is the loss of the relationship with the substance and with the people around it..and the awareness of distance from potentially supportive family and friends makes the early stages of change very hard to tolerate at times.
Research has shown time and again that having a robust support network can significantly reduce the odds of relapse (or the length of relapse should there be one). So, to best achieve one’s substance goals, it’s best to involve as many people as possible, even though it can feel like the exact opposite of what you want to do when you are first making significant life and behavioral changes.
Below are tips to on how to build your support team..
1. Start by educating yourself and others about what you need
As we are sure you’ve noticed, there is a lot of information out there about substance abuse and treatment. Some of it is helpful and some of it is simply not true. For family and friends to understand what you’re going through, they need to learn more about substance abuse, about the types of treatment available, and about what you are doing and feeling! It’s not always easy, but the first step is to have frank conversations about what you are going through and what you need to keep moving forward. We also recommend pointing them to professional resources, like books, or websites run by professionals (like this one!) as it will add some credence to what you’re saying to them.
2. Tell them HOW they can help. Be brief and specific.
If you want something from someone, it best to ask for it specifically, or you are not likely to get what you want. Same goes for support . . . ask specifically for what you want from someone else! This requires you to think through what would be helpful BEFORE you have the conversation. Don’t worry though, you can always change your request later with another conversation.
3. Be Patient with Yourself and with Them.
Most people are awkward and intimidated when making changes in behavior. And when you are trying to interact with people who have distanced themselves from you (due to fear, anger, frustration, or your withdrawal from them) there is often a history of difficult interactions. Be patient with family and friends who want to be supportive but don’t have the skills yet to pull it off exactly in the way that you need or wish. Just like you, they may need some time, and some guidance to get it right.
4. Pick up the phone!
Now that you’ve asked for help, if someone calls (texts, emails, etc) to provide that support, respond to them! Sometimes that may be easy, other times it may be very, very difficult. The more you can push yourself to stay connected, the more you can benefit from their support. What do you do if you are having a bad day, and just can’t bear to talk with anyone? Text, email or call them back and say…”hey, thanks for reaching out. I need the day to get my thoughts together…but I’ll call you tomorrow.” Try not to avoid, disappear, or fail to respond to efforts to connect from others as doing so will only make you feel worse (“I just can’t get my act together and now they are even more upset with me”) and make them more upset and worried (“He asked me to check in and now he is not answering…something bad must be happening”).
5. Positively reinforce them.
If you like something that someone does and you want them to keep doing it, give them some positive feedback! Saying “thank you, that was nice” or “I really appreciate the way you handled that” goes a long way towards making those behaviors re-occur. Almost everyone likes to be noticed and likes positive feedback or a compliment. People in general like to know when they are getting it right.
Do you have any other tips for bringing in family and friends? What has worked for you in the past?